Brown v. Davenport

Decision Date21 April 2022
Docket Number20-826
Citation142 S.Ct. 1510
Parties Mike BROWN, Acting Warden, Petitioner v. Ervine DAVENPORT
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Solicitor General Fadwa A. Hammoud, Lansing, MI, for Petitioner.

Tasha Bahal, Boston, MA, for Respondent.

Dana Nessel, Michigan Attorney General, Fadwa A. Hammoud, Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Lansing, MI, Jared Schultz, Assistant Attorney General Criminal Trials & Appeals Div., for Petitioner.

Tasha J. Bahal, Reuven Dashevsky Gary B. Howell-Walton, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Boston, MA, Catherine M.A. Carroll, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, Counsel of Record, for Respondent

Justice GORSUCH delivered the opinion of the Court.

After a state court determines that an error at trial did not prejudice a criminal defendant, may a federal court grant habeas relief based solely on its independent assessment of the error's prejudicial effect under Brecht v. Abrahamson , 507 U.S. 619, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353 (1993) ? Or must a federal court also evaluate the state court's decision under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)? The Sixth Circuit ruled that an individual who satisfies Brecht alone is entitled to habeas relief. This was mistaken. When a state court has ruled on the merits of a state prisoner's claim, a federal court cannot grant relief without first applying both the test this Court outlined in Brecht and the one Congress prescribed in AEDPA.

I
A

One evening in 2007, Annette White attended a gathering with Ervine Davenport. On the drive home, Mr. Davenport killed Ms. White. At trial, the only questions concerned why and how. Mr. Davenport claimed self-defense and testified to that effect. On his account, Ms. White grew angry during the trip and tried to grab the steering wheel from him while he was driving. Then she pulled out a box cutter and cut his arm. Mr. Davenport responded by extending one arm and pinning Ms. White against the passenger side of the car, with his hand under her chin. Eventually, she stopped struggling. On discovering that Ms. White was no longer breathing, Mr. Davenport panicked and left her body in a field.

The prosecution offered a very different version of events. It stressed that Ms. White was 5’2" tall, 103 pounds, and had a broken wrist, while Mr. Davenport was 6’5" tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds. The prosecution presented evidence that Mr. Davenport had bragged to others before the killing that, if he had a problem with someone, he would choke the person. Days before Ms. White's death, Mr. Davenport had done just that—strangling another woman until she lost consciousness and urinated on herself. Nor, on the prosecution's account, were Mr. Davenport's actions after Ms. White's death consistent with his claim of self-defense. Instead of contacting the police, he not only abandoned his victim's body. He also fled the scene and later visited Ms. White's home where he stole electronics and food. He told a witness, too, that he "had to off " Ms. White.

The prosecution offered additional proof. When police questioned Mr. Davenport, he gave differing accounts and initially denied any involvement in Ms. White's death. While authorities did locate a box cutter in the car, they did not find it inside the cab of the vehicle but in the trunk and untainted by blood. Also, a forensic pathologist testified that Ms. White died of manual strangulation. The pathologist explained that a victim of strangulation may lose consciousness after 30 seconds, but that death does not occur until the victim is without air for at least four to five minutes. After Mr. Davenport testified that he merely extended his arm across Ms. White's neck to keep her from cutting him, the forensic pathologist offered his view that this account was not plausible. Ms. White's injuries, found on both sides of her neck, were consistent with strangulation—but inconsistent with the application of broad force across the front of her neck.

After a 7-day trial, a jury convicted Mr. Davenport of first-degree murder.

B

On direct appeal in state court, Mr. Davenport sought to have his conviction set aside in light of Deck v. Missouri , 544 U.S. 622, 125 S.Ct. 2007, 161 L.Ed.2d 953 (2005). In Deck , this Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause generally forbids shackling a criminal defendant at trial absent "a special need." Id. , at 626, 125 S.Ct. 2007. Mr. Davenport noted that during his trial (but not his testimony) officials shackled one of his hands, his waist, and his ankles. Those shackles may not have been visible to many in the courtroom because of a "privacy screen" around the table where Mr. Davenport sat. But the trial court did not articulate on the record any special need for its security measures.

Ultimately, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed that the trial court's actions violated Deck . At the same time, the court sought to apply Chapman v. California , 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967). In Chapman , this Court held that a preserved claim of constitutional error identified on direct appeal does not require reversal of a conviction if the prosecution can establish that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. , at 24, 87 S.Ct. 824. To answer Chapman ’s question, the Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to determine whether "the jury saw the defendant's shackles" and, if so, "whether the prosecution can demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the shackling error did not contribute to the verdict against the defendant." People v. Davenport , 488 Mich. 1054, 794 N.W.2d 616 (2011).

On remand, the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing in which it heard from all 12 jurors. Five remembered seeing Mr. Davenport's restraints; the remaining seven did not. All 12 testified that Mr. Davenport's shackles did not enter into their deliberations or influence their unanimous verdict. Based on this evidence, the trial court found that the State had carried its burden to show harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt.

Again, Mr. Davenport appealed. This time, Michigan's appellate courts declined to disturb the judgment. For its part, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that "the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the shackling error did not affect the verdict." People v. Davenport , 2012 WL 6217134, *3 (Dec. 13, 2012) (per curiam ). In doing so, the court relied on both the jurors’ testimony and that "the evidence at trial overwhelmingly established defendant's guilt and belied his contention that he killed the 103-pound victim in self-defense, a theory that was explicitly disputed by expert medical testimony." Id. , at *2, n. 2. The Michigan Supreme Court denied Mr. Davenport's request for discretionary review. People v. Davenport , 494 Mich. 875, 832 N.W.2d 389, 390 (2013).

C

Mr. Davenport next sought relief in federal district court, filing a habeas petition in the Western District of Michigan. Under AEDPA, however, a federal court may disturb a final state-court conviction in only narrow circumstances. As relevant here, the statute provides that, when a state court has already ruled on the merits of the habeas petitioner's claim, he must show that decision was either (1) "contrary to" or an "unreasonable application of " clearly established federal law, as determined by the decisions of this Court, or (2) based on an "unreasonable determination of the facts" presented in the state-court proceeding. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

The District Court found relief unwarranted under this standard. The Michigan state courts had ruled on the merits of Mr. Davenport's claim of error. In doing so, they correctly identified this Court's controlling harmless-error rule from Chapman . And their conclusions involved neither an unreasonable application of Chapman nor an unreasonable determination of the facts. To the contrary, the District Court agreed with a Magistrate Judge's assessment that the state-court record contained no evidence "that the jurors were influenced" by his restraints and "overwhelming evidence of [Mr. Davenport's] guilt." Davenport v. MacLaren , 2016 WL 11262506, *4 (WD Mich., Nov. 7, 2016) ; see also Davenport v. MacLaren , 2017 WL 4296808, *1–*2 (WD Mich., Sept. 26, 2017) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) ).

D

After that loss, Mr. Davenport appealed to the Sixth Circuit, where a divided panel reversed. Davenport v. MacLaren , 964 F.3d 448 (2020).

Unlike the District Court, the Sixth Circuit declined to analyze the case under AEDPA. Instead, it held, only this Court's decision in Brecht v. Abrahamson governed its review. Handed down before Congress adopted AEDPA, Brecht sought to adapt Chapman ’s harmless-error rule, developed for cases on direct appellate review, for use in federal habeas proceedings. Brecht , 507 U.S., at 633–635, 113 S.Ct. 1710. Citing the need to afford appropriate respect to final state-court decisions that have already endured direct appeal, including potential review in this Court, Brecht effectively inverted Chapman ’s burden. 507 U.S., at 635, 113 S.Ct. 1710. Rather than require the prosecution to prove that a constitutional trial error is harmless, Brecht held that a state prisoner seeking to challenge his conviction in collateral federal proceedings must show that the error had a " ‘substantial and injurious effect or influence’ " on the outcome of his trial. Id. , at 637, 113 S.Ct. 1710. Persuaded that Mr. Davenport could satisfy his burden under Brecht , the panel majority ordered Michigan to retry or release him promptly. 964 F.3d, at 464–468.

Judge Readler dissented. He argued that Brecht and AEDPA set forth independent tests, and that both must be satisfied before habeas relief becomes permissible. In Judge Readler's view, too, the District Court correctly rejected Mr. Davenport's petition under AEDPA because the state courts hearing his case had not acted contrary...

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