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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
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High court sets more hoops for habeas relief

The decision against a man who was put in shackles at trial spurred dissenting liberal justices to chastise what they see as a “pointless demand.”

WASHINGTON (CN) — A Black man convicted of murdering a woman he says came at him with a box-cutter lost his chance at a retrial Thursday, with the Supreme Court laying out high standards for state criminal defendants seeking federal habeas corpus review. 

The 6-3 ruling fell along ideological lines with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the majority opinion and Justice Elena Kagan and the other liberal justices dissenting.

It comes about 15 years after Ervine Davenport, who is 6-foot-5 and weighs about 300 lbs., strangled Annette White while the two were driving home after consuming alcohol and crack cocaine. The diminutive White stood at 5-foot-2 and weighed just over 100 lbs., but Davenport says he feared for his life when she grabbed the steering wheel as he was driving and then sliced his arm with a box-cutter. He pinned his hand under her chin, pressing her up against the passenger-side window, until she stopped struggling. When he realized she was dead, he says, he panicked and left her body in a field.

At trial, Michigan prosecutors kept Davenport in shackles at the defense table. The jury rejected Davenport's self-defense claim and found him guilty of first-degree premeditated murder.

A Michigan appeals court would later rule that Davenport should not have been shackled, but it nevertheless affirmed his conviction, saying the shackles did not affect the jurors' opinions. The case moved to the Michigan Supreme Court for an evidentiary hearing on the issue. Here, too, the court found that the shackling did not affect the jury’s verdict. 

Davenport then filed for federal habeas relief where U.S. Magistrate Judge Ellen S. Carmody said the state court’s harmlessness determination did not meet the stringent requirements of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act but recommended nevertheless that the court deny habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit reversed, writing in a 2-to-1 decision that Davenport needed to satisfy only the Brecht v. Abrahamson precedent and not AEDPA.

Gorsuch and the majority took Davenport's retrial off the table Thursday, saying Davenport's presumed inability to satisfy AEDPA should have doomed his challenge where a state court has already ruled on the merits of his claim. 

“In cases like ours satisfying Brecht is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition to relief. AEDPA too must be satisfied,” Gorsuch wrote. “The Sixth Circuit erred in holding otherwise.” 

Writing in dissent, Kagan questioned the logic of having a defendant meet two standards. 

“We have made clear that the habeas court need apply only the standard prescribed in Brecht v. Abrahamson; it need not also run through the test set out in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA),” Kagan wrote. “That is because, we have both times explained, the Brecht standard ‘obviously subsumes’ the ‘more liberal’ AEDPA one: If a defendant meets the former, he will ‘necessarily’ meet the latter too.”

If there has ever been a case where a litigant met one standard but not the other, neither the majority nor the state could find it. 

“Several Circuits formerly followed the rule the majority announces today: Habeas courts there could not grant relief before separately applying Brecht and AEDPA/Chapman,” Kagan wrote. “Yet neither the majority nor the State has come up with a single case (nor have I) in which a court held that a petitioner satisfied Brecht but not AEDPA/Chapman.” 

She also said the additional standards wouldn’t create a different result. 

“In declaring Brecht insufficient, the majority consigns future habeas courts to a regimen of make-work,” Kagan wrote. “Now those courts will have to jump through AEDPA’s hoops as well, even though that extra analysis will never lead to a different result. I respectfully dissent from that pointless demand.” 

The majority's exploration of the history of habeas relief also earned harsh words from the Obama appointee. 

“Although it is more entertaining to play amateur historian, it is past time to put in some work on the technical issue before us: what standard(s) a habeas court should use to decide whether a state trial court’s constitutional error was harmless," she wrote. 

Michigan’s attorney general did not return a request for comment, nor did Davenport’s attorney Tasha Joy Bahal, an attorney with Wilmer Cutler Pickering. 

At trial, prosecutors presented testimony from a forensic pathologist to cast doubt on Davenport's self-defense narrative, saying White’s injuries were not consistent with Davenport’s telling of events.

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal

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