Michigan Supreme Court Holds Wrong Jury Oath Doesn't Warrant New Trial

On July 23, 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a criminal case that the fact that the trial court judge read the wrong oath to the jury before the trial does not warrant a new trial for defendant.

In People v Cain, Docket No. 149259, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the trial court's error in reading the jury the wrong oath so infected the trial process with unfairness that defendant was entitled to a new trial.  At trial, defendant was convicted of a number of serious felonies including first-degree murder.

Two Justices dissented, arguing that the reading of the wrong oath to the jury prevented defendant from ever having a fair trial in the first place, which is his constitutional right.

From the opinion's syllabus:

Brandon L. Cain was convicted in the Wayne Circuit Court of two counts of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a); two counts of felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b); two counts of torture, MCL 750.85; two counts of unlawful imprisonment, MCL 750.349b; carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony, MCL 750.227b; and being a felon in possession of a firearm, MCL 750.224f. At the start of the trial, the court, Vonda R. Evans, J., stated to the jury, “I will now ask you to stand and swear to perform your duty to try the case justly and to reach a true verdict.” The court clerk then proceeded to swear in the jury, but mistakenly read the oath given to prospective jurors before voir dire (that they would answer the questions concerning juror qualifications truthfully) rather than the juror’s oath set forth in MCR 2.511(H)(1). There was no objection to the failure to administer the proper oath. Defendant raised the issue of failing to properly swear the jury for the first time on appeal, moving for peremptory reversal of his convictions. The Court of Appeals granted the motion in an unpublished order, entered May 2, 2014 (Docket No. 314342), concluding that the failure to properly swear the jury was a structural error requiring a new trial. The prosecution sought leave to appeal, which the Supreme Court granted. 497 Mich 861 (2014).

In an opinion by Justice MARKMAN, joined by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices KELLY, ZAHRA, and BERNSTEIN, the Supreme Court held:

Because the jurors were conscious of the gravity of the task before them and the manner in which that task was to be carried out, the two primary purposes served by the juror’s oath, the error of failing to properly swear the jury in this case did not seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings.

1. Because defendant did not object to the trial court’s failure to properly swear the jury and therefore did not preserve the issue for appellate review, relief could be granted only if defendant (the person asserting that an error occurred) satisfied the four-pronged plain-error test set forth in People v Carines, 460 Mich 750 (1999), by showing (1) that an error occurred, (2) that the error was plain, that is, clear or obvious, and (3) that the error affected substantial rights, that is, that the outcome of the lower court proceedings was affected. If these elements are satisfied, the fourth Carines prong requires the appellate court to exercise its discretion in deciding whether to reverse, and (4) relief is warranted only when the appellate court determines that the plain, forfeited error resulted in the conviction of an actually innocent defendant or seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings.

2. The parties agreed that the failure to properly swear the jury constituted a plain error that satisfied the first and second Carines prongs, but disagreed about the third and fourth prongs. Even assuming that defendant had established the third prong, however, the trial court’s failure did not seriously affect the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the judicial proceedings in this case and defendant did not even argue that he was actually innocent. The fourth Carines prong is meant to be applied on a case-specific and fact-intensive basis. The operative inquiry is whether the error of failing to properly swear the jury in the particular case seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings.

3. The oath found in MCR 2.511(H)(1) imposes three duties on jurors: (1) to justly decide the questions submitted to them, (2) to render a true verdict, and (3) to do those things only on the evidence introduced and in accordance with the instructions of the court. The oath represents a solemn promise on the part of each juror to do his or her duty according to the dictates of the law to see that justice is done. The oath is administered to ensure that the jurors pay attention to the evidence, observe the credibility and demeanor of the witnesses, and conduct themselves at all times as befits one holding an important position.

4. The error here did not undermine the broader pursuits and values that the oath seeks to advance, however. One of the primary purposes of the oath (imparting to the jury members their duties as jurors) was alternatively fulfilled in large part by the trial court’s instructions prescribing the particulars of the jurors’ duties. The court instructed the jurors (1) that it was their responsibility to decide the facts of the case solely on the basis of the evidence presented and the law as the court gave it to them, (2) that they should not consider any other information regarding the trial that was not presented in the courtroom, (3) that they should not discuss the case among themselves until deliberations began, and (4) that they should keep open minds about the case, setting aside any bias and prejudice. The court also explained the concepts of the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt. The court’s instructions encompassed in even greater detail duties equivalent to those prescribed in the oath.

5. Another virtue of the juror’s oath is the powerful symbolism and sense of duty it imbues the oath-taker with and casts on the proceedings. That virtue was not lost in these proceedings. Each juror took a solemn oath to answer questions truthfully during voir dire, and each stated that he or she could be fair and impartial. In addition, before the start of the trial, the trial court instructed the jurors that they would be asked to stand and swear to perform their duty to try the case justly and reach a true verdict. The jurors then stood and the court clerk asked them to solemnly swear to answer the questions truthfully, to which the jurors collectively replied, “I do.” The trial court then thoroughly explained to the jurors their duties and responsibilities. Finally, at the end of trial, the court reminded the jurors that they had taken an oath to return a true and just verdict based only on the evidence and the court’s instructions on the law. Although these alternative efforts were not a perfect substitute for the oath required by MCR 2.511(H)(1), there was no reason to believe that the jurors did not understand the dignity and solemnity of the proceedings.

Court of Appeals’ order vacated, convictions and sentences reinstated, and case remanded to Court of Appeals for consideration of defendant’s remaining claims on appeal.

Justice VIVIANO, joined by Justice MCCORMACK, dissenting, stated that the juror’s oath plays an essential role in every criminal trial and that the majority’s holding rendered meaningless the requirement that those who judge another person’s guilt or innocence do so under the solemn obligation and sanction of an oath or affirmation. Justice VIVIANO agreed that the issue was properly reviewed under the plain-error standard and that the error here was plain. After detailing the long history, significance, and meaning of what constitutes a trial by jury, Justice VIVIANO concluded that the Sixth Amendment necessarily requires a sworn jury and that the failure to swear the jury amounted to a literal deprivation of defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Further, he would have held that an unsworn jury constitutes a structural error because the juror’s oath is woven into the very fabric of a trial and defies any attempt at quantifying the consequences of its absence as it relates to the jury’s verdict. As a result, it is not amenable to the prejudice inquiry under the third Carines prong. With respect to the fourth Carines prong, Justice VIVIANO observed that although the majority began its analysis with that prong, there is substantial overlap between the characteristics of structural errors (that they necessarily render a trial fundamentally unfair) and the standard under the fourth prong (that the error has a serious effect on the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the proceedings). The fact that a defendant has proved that a particular error is structural should also be sufficient to make the presumptive case that the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the proceedings have been seriously affected. Adopting this approach—one that recognizes that a structural error provides a rebuttable presumption that the fairness of the proceedings was seriously affected while allowing the prosecution to identify aspects of the trial showing that the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the proceedings were not seriously affected despite the structural error— would yield an approach to unpreserved structural errors (such as that in this case) that clarifies and better harmonizes the caselaw in this area. Employing this framework, Justice VIVIANO would have held that the failure to swear the jury had a fundamental and serious effect on the integrity of the proceedings; the instances in the trial record that the majority cited to conclude otherwise (features present in every criminal case) did not mitigate the fundamental unfairness that results when a defendant is tried by an unsworn jury.