Michigan Supreme Court Holds Judge Improperly Influenced Jury

On July 23, 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a criminal case that a judge's conduct before the jury at trial was so improper that it created an appearance of partiality and invaded the province of the jury, warranting a new trial before a different judge.

In People v Stevens, Docket No. 149380, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether defendant was entitled to a new trial because he was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial the first time. The facts of the case involved the death of defendant's three-month-old son who the prosecution claimed was murdered. Defendant claimed that he fell while walking with his son, who subsequently fell from defendant's arms and made impact with the ground.

From the opinion's syllabus:

Adam B. Stevens was convicted of second-degree murder, MCL 750.317, and second- degree child abuse, MCL 750.136b(3), following a jury trial in the Jackson Circuit Court, John G. McBain, J. The charges stemmed from the death of defendant’s three-month-old son, Kian Stevens. The prosecution alleged that defendant caused Kian’s death by either shaking him or slamming him against an object. Defendant alleged that he tripped and fell while holding Kian, and that as he fell, he lost control of Kian, who fell to the floor. Defendant denied shaking or slamming Kian. Defendant appealed his convictions and sentences. In an unpublished opinion per curiam, the Court of Appeals, METER, P.J., and RIORDAN, J. (SERVITTO, J., dissenting), affirmed. Defendant sought leave to appeal. The Supreme Court ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other peremptory action. 497 Mich 898 (2014).

In a unanimous opinion by Justice BERNSTEIN, the Supreme Court held:

A judge’s conduct pierces the veil of judicial impartiality and violates the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial when, considering the totality of the circumstances, it is reasonably likely that the judge’s conduct improperly influenced the jury by creating the appearance of advocacy or partiality against a party. In evaluating the totality of the circumstances, the reviewing court should inquire into a variety of factors including, but not limited to, the nature of the trial judge’s conduct, the tone and demeanor of the judge, the scope of the judicial conduct in the context of the length and complexity of the trial and issues therein, the extent to which the judge’s conduct was directed at one side more than the other, and the presence of any curative instructions, either at the time of an inappropriate occurrence or at the end of trial. When the issue is preserved and a reviewing court determines that the trial judge’s conduct pierced the veil of judicial impartiality, the court may not apply harmless-error review. Rather, the judgment must be reversed and the case remanded for a new trial. In this case, defendant challenged the judge’s questioning of himself and his expert witness, to which defense counsel objected vigorously at trial. The judge’s questions implied partiality, were argumentative, invaded the role of the prosecutor, and did not clarify testimony or elicit additional relevant information. The judge’s response to objections reflected an erroneous belief that his power to question witnesses had no limitations. The judge’s tone and demeanor also weighed in favor of holding that the judge improperly created the appearance of bias against defendant. The words used by the judge and the sequence of his questions projected incredulity, bias, and hostility. The complexity of the issues presented during trial did not warrant the extent of the judicial intervention that occurred, and the questioning targeted defendant’s case. Although the judge gave a general curative instruction at the end of the trial, the instruction did not overcome the appearance of bias the judge exhibited against the defense throughout the trial. Considering the totality of the circumstances, it is reasonably likely that the judge’s conduct improperly influenced the jury by creating the appearance of advocacy or partiality against defendant, piercing the judicial veil and depriving defendant of his right to a fair trial.

Reversed and remanded for a new trial before a different judge.