WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday over whether a Michigan man’s conviction was properly vacated after the trial judge declared a mistrial four hours into jury deliberations. “So the case comes down to whether or not this is a case of genuine deadlock, right?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked the man’s attorney.
Defendant Reginald Lett’s first trial ended in a mistrial after jurors sent the judge a note that said, “What if we can’t agree? Mistrial? Retrial? What?”
The trial judge then asked the forewoman if the jurors “were going to reach a unanimous verdict or not.” She said they weren’t, and the judge declared a mistrial.
Lett was later retried and convicted of second-degree murder and felony firearm possession in the fatal shooting of a taxi driver at a Detroit liquor store. Lett was sentenced to 16 to 40 years in prison.
He filed a habeas petition after losing at the state level, and a federal judge vacated his convictions. The 6th Circuit affirmed.
Because the case reached the Supreme Court on habeas review, the justices must decide the narrow question of whether the Michigan Supreme Court “unreasonably applied clearly established law” in upholding the trial judge’s finding of a “manifest necessity” for a mistrial.
Lett’s attorney, Marla McCowan, argued that it did.
The trial judge “acted hastily and precipitously and without regard for my client’s right to have the first jury deliberate to a verdict,” she said. “She declared a mistrial at the very first sign of disagreement and did not give anybody an opportunity to weigh in on that.”
Chief Justice Roberts jumped in: “With respect, it’s not the very first sign of disagreement. … You are making it sound more precipitous than it was.”
Justice John Paul Stevens seemed more sympathetic to McCowan’s view, suggesting that her argument “is that there was not a manifest necessity shown, even though there was disagreement about whether there was a deadlock.”
“Precisely,” McCowan replied.
“I don’t think the test is deadlock,” Stevens said. “The test is manifest necessity.”
Michigan attorney Joel McGormley maintained that unless Lett can show “clear and convincing evidence” that the state court’s ruling contradicted Supreme Court precedent, the state should win. “That’s why it’s imperative to view this case in the habeas box that it resides,” he said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked McCowan to pinpoint what Supreme Court precedent she thought had been unreasonably applied and how.
“Arizona v. Washington clearly established the law that the trial judge must exercise sound discretion in finding a manifest necessity,” the attorney responded.
Kennedy quickly pointed out that in Arizona, the trial judge was found to have exercised sound discretion.
“That’s a little shaky as precedent” for this case, Ginsburg said.