People v. Graves

Decision Date30 July 1998
Docket NumberNo. 5,Docket No. 110296,5
Citation458 Mich. 476,581 N.W.2d 229
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant, Cross-Appellee, v. Ronald K. GRAVES, Jr., Defendant-Appellee, Cross-Appellant. Calendar
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, David Gorcyca, Prosecuting Attorney, Robert C. Williams, Acting Chief, Appellate Division, and Kathryn G. Barnes, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Pontiac, for People.

State Appellate Defender (by Ralph C. Simpson and Rubina S. Mustafa), Detroit, for defendant.

Norman W. Donker, President, John D. O'Hair, Prosecuting Attorney, and Timothy A. Baughman, Chief of Research, Training and Appeals, Midland, amicus curiae, for Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.


TAYLOR, Justice.

Defendant Graves was charged with first-degree murder on the basis of the fatal shooting of Frank Stephens. At the close of the prosecution's case, defense counsel moved for a directed verdict of acquittal regarding the first-degree murder charge. The trial court denied the motion and instructed the jury that it could find defendant guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter, or not guilty. The jury returned a verdict of voluntary manslaughter (thereby acquitting defendant of the first- and second-degree murder charges).

Defendant argued in his appeal to the Court of Appeals that he was entitled to a new trial because the trial court had erred in submitting the first-degree murder charge to the jury. Defendant's argument was premised on the following statement from People v. Vail, 393 Mich. 460, 464, 227 N.W.2d 535 (1975):

[W]here a jury is permitted consideration of a charge unwarranted by the proofs there is always prejudice because a defendant's chances of acquittal on any valid charge is substantially decreased by the possibility of a compromise verdict. For this reason it is reversible error for a trial judge to refuse a directed verdict of acquittal on any charge where the prosecution has failed to present evidence from which the jury could find all elements of the crime charged. [Emphasis added.]

The Court of Appeals agreed with defendant's contention that there had been insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation to support the first-degree murder charge and therefore held that Vail required defendant be granted a new trial on the manslaughter charge. 224 Mich.App. 676, 681, 569 N.W.2d 911 (1997).

However, Judges Griffin and Bandstra urged this Court to overrule Vail. 1 Judges Griffin and Bandstra stated that if they were not bound by Vail, they would join the majority of other jurisdictions in rejecting the harsh and unrealistic position that actual prejudice may be presumed by the mere possibility of a compromise verdict. Id. at 679, 569 N.W.2d 911. We granted the prosecution's application for leave to appeal to consider whether we should overrule Vail. 456 Mich. 903, 572 N.W.2d 14 (1997). 2

Defendant argues that we should not overrule Vail because it has been a part of this state's jurisprudence since People v. Stahl, 234 Mich. 569, 572, 208 N.W. 685 (1926). While the Vail rule has been longstanding, it has not always been the rule in Michigan, and the rule has not been uniformly supported. See, e.g., People v. Robinson, 228 Mich. 64, 72, 199 N.W. 622 (1924), which stated that if the court erroneously instructed the jury regarding murder, the manslaughter verdict showed that the error was without prejudice. More recently, this Court implicitly criticized the Vail rule as being unduly speculative in People v. Johnson, 427 Mich. 98, 116, n. 15, 398 N.W.2d 219 (1986).

In any event, the standards we apply in deciding whether to overrule a case do not rest upon the length of time that the rule has been in effect. It is true of course that we do not lightly overrule a case. This Court has stated on many occasions that "[u]nder the doctrine of stare decisis, principles of law deliberately examined and decided by a court of competent jurisdiction should not be lightly departed." People v. Jamieson, 436 Mich. 61, 79, 461 N.W.2d 884 (1990). 3 Further, as aptly stated in McEvoy v. City of Sault Ste Marie, 136 Mich. 172, 178, 98 N.W. 1006 (1904):

Before this court overrules a decision deliberately made, it should be convinced not merely that the case was wrongly decided, but also that less injury will result from overruling than from following it.

When it becomes apparent that the reasoning of an opinion is erroneous, and that less mischief will result from overruling the case rather than following it, it becomes the duty of the court to correct it. Attorney General ex rel. Barnes v. Midland Co. Bd. of Supervisors, 178 Mich. 513, 518, 144 N.W. 883 (1914). Although we respect the principle of stare decisis, we also recognize the common wisdom that the rule of stare decisis is not an inexorable command. With that principle in mind, we believe that our reexamination of the so-called Vail rule, and the subsequent decision to overrule it, is proper because it is informed by a judgment premised on prudential and pragmatic considerations.

We first note that Vail is a rule of automatic reversal. As this Court recently reiterated in People v. Belanger, 454 Mich. 571, 575, 563 N.W.2d 665 (1997), "[r]ules of automatic reversal are disfavored, for a host of obvious reasons." 4 Indeed, the automatic reversal rule of Vail is inconsistent with this Court's modern harmless-error jurisprudence.

As explained in People v. Grant, 445 Mich. 535, 520 N.W.2d 123 (1994), and People v. Mateo, 453 Mich. 203, 551 N.W.2d 891 (1996), errors are to be classified as constitutional or nonconstitutional and preserved or unpreserved.

If the error is constitutional, it must be further classified as structural or nonstructural. If the constitutional error is structural, reversal is automatic. People v. Anderson (After Remand), 446 Mich. 392, 404-405, 521 N.W.2d 538 (1994). However, if the constitutional error is not a structural error, a defendant's conviction should be affirmed if the reviewing court is satisfied that the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 406, 521 N.W.2d 538.

If the error is a preserved error, but not constitutional in its nature, the Court must determine whether the error was harmless. This Court grappled in Mateo and People v. Gearns, 457 Mich. 170, 577 N.W.2d 422 (1998), with the proper test to apply in such circumstances. In Mateo, six members of this Court agreed that some level of assurance less than the "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" standard should be utilized in reviewing preserved nonconstitutional error. 5 Id. at 216, 551 N.W.2d 891. In Gearns, four justices indicated a preference for the "highly probable" test, i.e., they will not reverse a conviction if it is highly probable that the nonconstitutional error did not affect the judgment. Id. 6

Thus, depending on the nature of the error, it is appropriate to (1) automatically reverse, (2) reverse unless the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, or (3) (pursuant to the preference of four justices in Gearns ) reverse unless it is highly probable that the error did not affect the verdict.

Every member of this Court is now on record as holding that preserved nonconstitutional error, such as occurred here, should be reviewed under a lesser standard than the harmless beyond a reasonable doubt standard. 7 Obviously, when Mateo rejected the beyond a reasonable doubt standard for review of preserved nonconstitutional errors, it implicitly rejected the much higher automatic reversal standard. Thus our overruling of Vail is consistent with the post-Vail developments in this Court's harmless-error jurisprudence, i.e., the automatic reversal rule of Vail is inconsistent with Mateo and Gearns. 8

We also find that Vail is flawed in that it does not discuss or even acknowledge M.C.L. § 769.26; M.S.A. § 28.1096, the statutory statement of harmless error which establishes that a defendant should not be granted a new trial on the ground of misdirection of the jury unless it appears after examination of the entire record that the error resulted in a miscarriage of justice. We have applied this statute in a number of contexts in recent years. See People v. Hall, 435 Mich. 599, 612, n. 10, 460 N.W.2d 520 (1990). 9

Moreover, Michigan is one of only a handful of states that requires reversal under the circumstances of this case. Anno.: Modern status of law regarding cure of error, in instruction as to one offense, by conviction of higher or lesser offense, 15 A.L.R.4th 118, part III, §§ 21-24, pp. 164-177. The vast majority of states apply a harmless-error analysis. Id. 10

We find the reasoning supporting the majority position persuasive. First, as Judge Griffin's excellent opinion points out, Vail is premised on the unwarranted assumption that jurors do not follow their instructions not to compromise their views. 224 Mich.App. at 679-680, 569 N.W.2d 911. Moreover, an examination of the legal underpinnings of Vail reveals that the stern judicial response of automatic reversal is based on a supposition that can only be equated with rough guesswork regarding what happened in the jury room. The jurors in the case at bar received the standard instruction not to compromise their views ("[N]one of you should give up your honest opinion about the case just because other jurors disagree with you or just for the sake of reaching a verdict"). The court gave further instructions after a period of deliberation wherein the court told the jury "the verdict to which you agree must of course be your own verdict as a result of your own convictions and not on mere acquiescence and the conclusion of your fellow jurors...." It is also the case that the jurors were polled after rendering their verdict and each juror affirmed a verdict of manslaughter.

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