“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Chad Readler argued in dissent that the court should uphold the conviction of a man who was forced to wear shackles during his criminal trial. The court majority rejected Readler’s view and granted post-conviction relief in June 2020 in Davenport v. MacLaren.
Ervine Lee Davenport was drinking beer and using drugs with Annette White and other friends when White was asked to leave the friends’ house because of her aggressive behavior. Davenport testified that he tried to calm her down as he drove her home, but that she remained very aggressive, trying to grab the steering wheel, “yelling and kicking,” and pulled out a boxcutter with which she cut his arm. He tried to pin her against the side of the car with his hand pressed against her neck, she scratched his face, and he pinned her again. She stopped breathing and died. He claimed that he had acted in self-defense, but Michigan state prosecutors charged him with murder.
During his trial, Davenport was forced to sit with one hand in handcuffs, with “shackles around his waist and ankles.” No “on-the-record justification” was given for the shackling by the judge. On appeal of his conviction for first degree murder, Davenport raised the issue that he was deprived of due process when the court required him to wear shackles during the trial.
At a state court post-conviction hearing, several jurors testified that they saw the shackles and recalled comments from other jurors about them, including one who was asked whether they “made her nervous,” but the jurors claimed that the shackles did not affect their deliberations. The state supreme court agreed that it was wrong for Davenport to have been shackled, but ruled that “the error was harmless” and upheld his conviction. A federal district court rejected Davenport’s petition for federal post-conviction habeas corpus relief and Davenport, now acting as his own lawyer, appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
In an opinion by Judge Jane Stranch, the Sixth Circuit reversed. Stranch stated that the Supreme Court has specifically ruled that “the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the use of physical restraints visible to the jury” during a trial, unless there is a specific justification that was not present here. “Visible shackling,” the Court has explained, “undermines the presumption of innocence and the related fairness of the factfinding process” by suggesting guilt to the jury. Since the state appeals court had already ruled against Davenport, Stranch went on, he could receive federal post-conviction relief only if the shackling error had a “substantial or injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”
After a careful review, the majority found that this standard was met, and that the error in shackling Davenport was not “harmless.” Contrary to the state’s contention, the evidence of Davenport’s guilt was far from “overwhelming” the majority pointed out, because in the context of the fight that took place between Davenport and White, there was not strong evidence of the premeditation required for first degree murder in Michigan. And as the Supreme Court has ruled, the majority noted, the subjective testimony of jurors that the shackling did not substantially affect them “bears little weight.” On the contrary, the majority explained, the fact that more than half the jurors still remembered the shackles three years after the trial and that several said they thought Davenport might be dangerous when they saw them suggested that the shackles did in fact prejudice the trial. “Leaving jurors with an impression that a defendant has already been determined to be dangerous,” Stranch wrote, “is particularly troublesome when that defendant is charged with a crime a jury might expect a dangerous person to commit.” Based on the facts and relevant precedent, the majority concluded that the shackling error was not harmless and did prejudice Davenport.
Trump judge Readler harshly dissented, disagreeing with the majority’s interpretation of the facts and relevant precedent. He argued that to grant federal habeas relief under federal law, the court must specifically find that the state court’s conclusion that shackling was harmless error was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” [Not sure the next paragraph responds to the standard Readler was arguing for around ‘unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law]
The majority responded to Readler and showed that he was wrong. With respect to his claim that it must be shown that the state court ruling was “contrary” to established law in addition to finding that the error in fact had a substantial and injurious effect, the majority pointed out that the Supreme Court had specifically held that it “makes no sense” to require such a specific showing since that issue would be included in determining that the error was a significant one that had a substantial injurious effect. Readler’s arguments, the majority concluded, were based on “conceptual error,” serious “misunderstanding” and “confusion.”
The majority accordingly rejected Readler’s claims and granted habeas relief to Davenport. Under Readler’s view, however, the serious and prejudicial error of shackling someone as they stand trail in front of a jury would have been permitted.