969 F.3d 685 (6th Cir. 2020), 18-2367, Wofford v. Woods

Docket Nº:18-2367
Citation:969 F.3d 685
Opinion Judge:BOGGS, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Melvin WOFFORD, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Jeffrey WOODS, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.
Attorney:David Porter, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant. Colleen P. Fitzharris, FEDERAL COMMUNITY DEFENDER, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee. David Porter, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant. Colleen P. Fitzharris, FEDERAL COMM...
Judge Panel:Before: BOGGS, BATCHELDER, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:August 13, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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969 F.3d 685 (6th Cir. 2020)

Melvin WOFFORD, Petitioner-Appellee,


Jeffrey WOODS, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 18-2367

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 13, 2020

Argued: October 17, 2019.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:16-cv-13083-Laurie J. Michelson, District Judge.

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David Porter, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.

Colleen P. Fitzharris, FEDERAL COMMUNITY DEFENDER, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.


David Porter, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.

Colleen P. Fitzharris, FEDERAL COMMUNITY DEFENDER, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

Before: BOGGS, BATCHELDER, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.


BOGGS, Circuit Judge.

The right to "trial by an impartial jury" guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment contains certain substantive requirements. Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___, 140 S.Ct. 1390, 1395, 206 L.Ed.2d 583 (2020). One of these is the rule, established since the Middle Ages, that the trial judge cannot remove a juror based on that juror's opinion of the merits of the case. Yet at the same time, trial judges have long-established power, consistent with the Constitution, to remove jurors for misconduct. This case concerns what happens when a trial judge removes a juror for misconduct when that juror is also a holdout against conviction.

Wofford was found guilty of murder in a Michigan court following the removal and replacement of a juror. While that juror was holding out against conviction at the time, the judge removed her because of her misconduct: she had violated his instructions not to discuss the case with anyone other than her fellow jurors by hiring a lawyer to address the court about

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the tensions in the jury room. The Michigan Court of Appeals (MCOA) affirmed Wofford's conviction under a state precedent on juror removal. A federal district court then granted Wofford's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court held that the MCOA's decision was not entitled to deference under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254, because the Michigan court had overlooked Wofford's Sixth Amendment claims. Second, it held that the removal of the juror violated Wofford's Sixth Amendment rights.

In assessing this appeal, we first review the factual determinations that the federal district court made in reviewing the factual findings of the MCOA. This review shows that, while the juror was a holdout, she was not removed for this reason, but instead because of her misconduct.

Then, we turn to review whether the district court was legally correct in granting a writ of habeas corpus on these facts. The recent Supreme Court decision in Ramos provides guidance on the Sixth Amendment right at the center of this case: the right not to have a juror removed due to the juror's opinions on the merits of the case is contained in the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a "trial by an impartial jury." Cf. 140 S.Ct. at 1395. We review first the history and limits of this right and then the different ways in which Michigan courts and certain federal courts have attempted to protect it. This history makes it clear that Michigan did not overlook Wofford's Sixth Amendment claims.

This is a case of first impression in this circuit. Many of our sister circuits, on direct appeal, and some states have applied a prophylactic rule, holding that where there is a "reasonable possibility" that the removal decision stems from the juror's views on the merits of the case, such removal is impermissible and is grounds for reversal of a conviction and a new trial. See, e.g., United States v. Symington, 195 F.3d 1080, 1087 (9th Cir. 1999). But the Supreme Court has held that the state courts are not bound by the federal appellate courts' decisions on constitutional questions. See Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. 289, 305, 133 S.Ct. 1088, 185 L.Ed.2d 105 (2013). Here, the MCOA was therefore free to require a showing of an actual constitutional violation. Implicitly but clearly, it did so. As a result, we reverse.

I. Factual and Procedural History

A. The Murder

In June 1993, Thomas Gilmore was strangled to death outside of his employer's offices late at night. Gilmore, a surveyor, worked for a company located in a building that also contained a roofing company. Police found evidence suggesting that a person or persons familiar with the interior layout of the roofing company had broken into it, stolen a circular saw, and attempted to force open an inner office where more valuable equipment and cash were kept. The point of entry appeared to be a previously broken window that was covered with sheet metal held up by duct tape and screws. Police found two hairs stuck to the duct tape that held the sheet metal in place and, on a wall and work bench, two droplets of blood that they suspected came from the burglar after he cut himself on some of the broken glass while entering.

The police theorized, and prosecutors would later argue, that Gilmore had an encounter with the person(s) involved, either while taking a break outside from his late-night work (as he sometimes would) or after he was lured outside. Gilmore had been beaten severely and then strangled with a rag or piece of clothing. Gilmore's assailant used the handle of a hammer, taken from the roofing company, either in Gilmore's beating or to assist in his strangulation,

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or both. As evidence suggested a period of time between the beating and the killing, police posited that the burglar realized that Gilmore would recognize him and thus killed Gilmore to ensure his silence. Yet for over two decades, the case lay cold. Then, due to advances in DNA technology, the state was able to match the hair and the blood to Melvin Wofford, who was an employee of the roofing company at the time of the murder.

B. The Trial

Wofford was tried for murder in a Michigan state court in August 2013. The prosecution not only relied on the physical evidence and deductions outlined above but also introduced evidence that Wofford had needed money for a drug habit and that the roofers' pay had recently been delayed by the company. A former coworker testified that Wofford had been out drinking with him on the night of the murder but mysteriously disappeared at about 3 A.M., only to reappear the next morning sleeping in the coworker's living room. Moreover, witnesses said that Wofford did not return to work the day after the murder or the day following, and may have never returned again. As some of the evidence at the scene of the crime did not point to Wofford, the prosecution offered a theory in the alternative that he had had an accomplice.

The defense relied primarily on raising points of reasonable doubt. The initial investigation of the burglary had been sloppy, as it was at that time a low-priority crime; Gilmore's body was not discovered, hidden in the bushes outside, for another 24 hours after the break-in was reported. By the time the body was discovered, the crime scene was contaminated. The defense argued that it was natural for some of Wofford's blood to be in a place where he worked with sharp tools and construction equipment, and that he could easily have shed some of his "long blond hairs" while working, which subsequently were carried by the air and got stuck in tape. The prosecution countered with testimony indicating that the blood droplets were fresh and invited the jury to observe that nothing else, not even dust, was attached to the duct tape, which implied that it had been freshly torn from the metal that covered the window when the hairs stuck to it. The defense further argued that only a used circular saw worth $30 had been stolen, and the burglary would thus have been a misdemeanor; therefore, concealing his identity would be a poor motive for the burglar to commit murder. Because Gilmore had been so badly beaten, the defense inferred that he must have fought back. Yet Wofford's coworker testified that he was in the same clothes the next morning as the night before, which did not appear bloody or torn, and witnesses who saw Wofford in the days after the murder did not recall seeing bruises on his hands or face. Nor was his blood identified among the samples taken from Gilmore's body. Finally, the defense pointed to two sets of alternative suspects: another tenant of the building with a history of violence, to whose son Gilmore owed money, and two men who had been convicted of a burglary and murder in a nearby town at around the same time.

When the judge swore the jury at the beginning of the case, he instructed them that: You must not discuss the case with anyone, including your family or friends. You must not even discuss it with the other jurors until the time comes for you to decide the case. When it is time for you to decide the case I will send you to the jury room for that purpose. Then you should discuss the case among yourselves but only in the jury room and only when all the jurors are there. When the trial is over you may, if you wish, discuss this case with anyone.

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Trial lasted for nine days spread over three weeks. At the end of each day, the judge reminded the jurors not to talk to anyone else about the case.1 Instructing the jury at the end of the trial, the judge told them, "you must decide this case based only on the evidence admitted during the trial." He reminded the jury that "all the cautionary instructions I've given you ... would continue to apply, so keep an open mind, not discuss [sic] the case with anyone else[,] have no...

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