By Eve Brensike Primus
October 3, 2021
In Brown v. Davenport, judges will again wonder how a provision of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act 1996 affects access of state detainees to the federal habeas corpus examination. The case, which will be debated on Tuesday, concerns the standard of review that federal habeas courts should use when assessing previous state court decisions that constitutional errors were harmless.
Fifty-four years ago, in Chapman v. California, the Supreme Court ruled that the most preserved constitutional trial errors will result in a direct appeal reversal, unless the state can prove that the errors were “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” But in 1993, in Brecht v. Abrahamson, the court adopted a different standard of harmless error review for federal habeas corpus cases, citing finality interests and the deference due to state decisions in our federalist system. For habeas cases, Brecht requires the demonstration of “actual prejudice”, which means that the constitutional violation in question must have had “a material and prejudicial effect or influence in the determination of the jury’s verdict”, before an inmate can obtain redress.
Three years later Brecht, Congress passed the AEDPA, which provides that no state prisoner can obtain habeas relief on the basis of a constitutional claim that has been “tried on the merits in proceedings before a state court “unless the state court decision” resulted in a decision contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States “or involved an unreasonable determination of the facts. Questions immediately arose about the relationship between AEDPA and the Brecht harmless error standard. In Fry vs. Piler and Davis vs. Ayala, the Supreme Court ruled that the AEDPA had not moved Brecht, but rather than Brecht “Subsumes” AEDPA. Ervine Lee Davenport’s case is now asking the court to determine exactly what that means.
Davenport was convicted of first degree premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after a trial where he was visibly shackled in front of the jury. Three years before the Davenport trial, the Supreme Court ruled in Bridge vs. Missouri that obstruction of an accused before the jury is inherently prejudicial and violates an accused’s due process rights, unless the state can demonstrate a “special need” to justify obstruction. No such justification was offered in the Davenport case.
On appeal, Davenport argued that his conviction should be overturned because of this constitutional violation, but Michigan appeals courts ruled that the error was harmless. At trial, there was no doubt that Davenport had killed the victim. The only questions were whether he had acted in self-defense and whether he had planned the murder. In a post-trial evidence hearing in state court, jurors said they saw the chains, discussed the chains during the trial and believed Davenport was dangerous. But jurors also said they did not discuss the obstruction during deliberations and did not believe it affected their verdict. Michigan trial and intermediate appellate courts relied on this latter evidence to conclude that the error was harmless. The Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal, but only after dismissing the Michigan Court of Appeal’s appeal to juror testimony to support its harmless error analysis. The state high court reprimanded the reasoning of the intermediate appellate court as inconsistent with Holbrook vs. Flynn – a case in which the Supreme Court rejected relying solely on jurors’ assessments of whether they had suffered prejudice when considering whether courtroom security procedures were so inherently prejudicial that they violated due process guarantees. But the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal, noting “substantial evidence of guilt presented at trial.”
Davenport then filed a federal habeas corpus petition challenging the constitutionality of his continued detention. The state admitted the violation of due process. The only question was whether the error was harmless. The federal district court denied the remedy, but a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit overturned. The majority of the 6th Circuit applied Brecht and found that the obstructions had a substantial and prejudicial effect on the verdict. Having determined that Brecht was satisfied, the 6th Circuit ruled that Davenport was entitled to habeas relief. She did not believe she had to perform a separate AEDPA analysis because Brecht “Subsumes” AEDPA. Other circuits require habeas seekers to meet Brecht and also demonstrate separately that the state court Chapman decision was unreasonable under AEDPA. The 6th Circuit voted 8-7 to decline the bench review, with two of the eight judges (Chief Justice Jeffrey Sutton and Judge Raymond Kethledge) writing that they thought the panel’s decision was wrong but not worthy of ‘bench. The Supreme Court then took the case.
Michigan, as a petitioner, maintains that state prisoners should officially cover the range of both Brecht and AEDPA before they can get relief. This would mean that Davenport would have to show both that the obstruction had a substantial and detrimental effect or influence on the verdict in his case and that the state court’s decision that the obstruction error was harmless was to the contrary or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established rules. federal law. The state argues that the AEDPA moved the federal review of habeas from a regime in which federal judges independently assessed judgments of state courts on constitutional claims to a regime that demands deference to citizens. reasonable judgments of state courts. This deference regime, Michigan argues, requires federal courts to assess safety decisions from the perspective of state courts rather than substituting their own independent judgment as Brecht allow. In addition, state notes that AEPDA does not allow federal courts to extend Supreme Court precedents to new contexts, does not allow reliance on circuit court precedents, prohibits examination of evidence derived from outside the state court record and gives state courts broad discretion when applying general standards. Because Brecht has none of these limitations, Michigan maintains that it is doing violence to the AEDPA to allow Brecht to replace a separate AEDPA analysis.
Davenport retorts by asserting that when a state prisoner relies only on the legal and factual elements considered admissible under the AEDPA, BrechtThe determination of the existence of actual harm necessarily means that a contrary decision by a state court is unreasonable. Brecht requires “more than a reasonable possibility that the error was prejudicial”. Thus, according to Davenport, if there is more than a “reasonable possibility” that the error was prejudicial, no impartial lawyer could agree with the state court’s conclusion that the prosecution has proved that the error was. harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. That is why Brecht encompasses AEDPA and avoids the need for a separate AEDPA investigation. In these circumstances, a separate and formal AEPDA investigation is redundant and unnecessary.
Davenport admits a separate AEDPA investigation would be needed if a state prisoner brought new evidence outside of the trial record, relied on arguments not made in state court or circuit rather than precedent of the Supreme Court, or ignored the state court’s analysis. But he claims he didn’t do any of those things, so the Brecht analysis should suffice. (The State argues that the 6th Circuit built on circuit precedent, provided new social science evidence, and addressed new arguments never raised in a state court, so that even according to Davenport’s own test, a separate AEPDA investigation is required.)
If Michigan wins and a separate AEDPA investigation is required, it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will send the case back to the 6th Circuit to conduct that separate investigation or resolve the issue itself. Interestingly, the two sides cannot even agree on which state court decision would be the subject of an AEDPA analysis. Davenport argues that the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision is the last reasoned decision, because it rejected the Michigan Court of Appeal’s harmless error reasoning. The state argues that the Michigan Supreme Court order was not a reasoned decision because it denied the application for leave to appeal. Instead, the state wants the federal court to review the High Court order until the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling on whether to conduct an AEDPA analysis. Either way, Davenport maintains he can meet the stringent AEDPA requirements, and the state maintains that he cannot.
This case, while technical, has implications for when and whether state detainees will be able to obtain habeas relief. An operation that Brecht automatically satisfying AEDPA – even in a subset of cases – would mean one less obstacle for habeas seekers to obtain redress. But the Roberts court has increasingly restricted the scope of the federal habeas review under the AEDPA’s new litigation bar, making it extremely difficult for state prisoners whose claims have been tried by a state court to obtain redress. And the Supreme Court has been quite prepared to reprimand the lower courts – and the 6th Circuit in particular – for failing to show sufficient deference in rulings by state courts under the AEDPA.