LOCATION: Recorder’s Court
DOCKET NO.: 09-338
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
CITATION: 559 US 766 (2010)
GRANTED: Nov 30, 2009
ARGUED: Mar 29, 2010
DECIDED: May 03, 2010
Joel D. McGormley – for the petitioner
Marla R. McCowan – for the respondent (appointed by the Court)
Facts of the case
On the second day of jury deliberations in Reginald Lett’s murder trial in a Michigan state court, the trial judge declared a mistrial because a juror asked what would happen if the jury did not agree. Mr. Lett was subsequently retried and convicted of second-degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. After exhausting his state court remedies, including an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, Mr. Lett petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in a Michigan federal district court arguing that his retrial violated the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause. The federal district court granted the petition.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The court recognized that a “court may not force a defendant to undergo retrial on a matter that concluded without a conviction or acquittal unless there was a ‘manifest necessity’ for declaring a mistrial.” While the court further recognized that a jury deadlock is a manifest necessity for declaring a mistrial, a trial judge’s decision may only be upheld if it was based on an exercise of “sound discretion.” Here, the court concluded that the Michigan Supreme Court erred in finding that the trial judge had exercised sound discretion.
Did the Sixth Circuit err in holding that the Michigan Supreme Court failed to apply clearly established U.S. Supreme Court precedent when it denied relief on double jeopardy grounds after a state trial court declared a mistrial?
Media for Renico v. Lett
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 03, 2010 in Renico v. Lett
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
I have our opinion this morning in case, 09-338 Renico versus Lett.
Every now and then juries in criminal cases are not able to agree on a verdict and when a jury is genuinely deadlocked, the trial judge may declare a mistrial.
The jury is dismissed and the prosecutor can decide whether to try the defendant before a new jury, but the defendant has an interest in having his case decided in one prosecution so the jury must be genuinely deadlocked.
If it is not, retrial of the defendant violates the Double Jeopardy Clause.
Now our cases have said that the decision whether to grant a mistrial is committed to the “sound discretion” of the trial judge.
That judge after all is on the scene and has the best perspective on the jury.
All a reviewing court has is a cold transcript.
In this case, the trial was relatively straightforward and took nine hours.
The jury deliberated for four hours before sending a note, asking what if we can’t agree; mistrial, retrial, what?
The judge called the jury in and the following exchange took place.
The court, I received your note asking me what if you can’t agree and I have to conclude from that that is your situation at this time.
So I’d like to ask the fore person to identify themselves please.
The fore person steps forward, identifies herself.
The court, Okay, thank you, alright.
I need to ask you if the jury is deadlocked?
in other words, is there a disagreement as to the verdict?
The fore person, Yes there is.
The court, Alright, do you believe that it is hopelessly deadlocked?
The fore person, The majority of us don’t believe that.
And the court cuts her off, don’t say which you’re going to say, okay?
The fore person, Oh!
The court, I don’t want to know what your verdict might be or how the split is or any of that, thank you, okay?
Are you going to reach an unanimous verdict or not?
The fore person pauses.
The court, Yes or no.
The fore person, No judge.
The Judge then declares a mistrial.
The defendant was retried and found guilty.
He argued that the judge acted too quickly in concluding that the jury was really deadlocked.
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
The State Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the trial judge’s decision.
The defendant then sought to have the Supreme Court’s ruling overturned by a federal court through a writ of Habeas Corpus.
But when a defendant does that, the federal court does not just start over and take a fresh look at the issue.
Under a law called The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act or AEDPA, the federal court may only rule for a state prisoner if the relevant state court decision was contrary to clearly established Federal law, was an unreasonable application of that law or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.
So we do not decide whether the state trial judge was right.
We do not decide whether the State Supreme Court was right when it upheld her decision.
The only issue is whether the State Supreme Court decision was unreasonable and we hold it was not.
Here we had a jury unable to reach a verdict in four hours after trial that only lasted nine.
You had a jury asking what happens if they don’t agree and of course you had a direct statement by the fore person that the jury would not be able to reach a unanimous verdict.
Now the trial judge could have done more, a more thorough job of probing to make sure the jury was really deadlocked and we’re not saying that the State Supreme Court decision was right, reasonable judges can disagree about that, but we’re saying that the State Supreme Court decision was not unreasonable, and therefore, we do not upset the state court decision.
Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Sotomayor has joined and in which Justice Breyer has joined in part.