WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Thursday that it would not overturn Michigan’s decision to uphold the conviction of Ervine Davenport, a Kalamazoo-area man who argued he was inappropriately shackled during his trial for murder in 2008.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the court’s conservative majority, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
All of the justices in the majority were nominated by Republicans, and all of the justices who agreed with the dissent were nominated by Democrats.
Davenport, now 57, was sentenced to life without parole in August 2008 after being convicted of first-degree murder for strangling a woman to death in 2007. He admitted to the strangling but was shackled during his trial, which was visible to the jury and is unconstitutional.
Davenport challenged his conviction on the basis that his shackling was a violation of his due process rights, but the Michigan Courts on Appeal concluded the error was harmless, noting the only questions at trial had been whether Davenport acted in self-defense or in a premeditated manner. He had admitted to choking the woman.
The issue before the justices was what standard that federal courts, in reviewing such cases from state prisoners, should apply to determine whether a trial error was “harmless.”
” . ..we cannot see how the Michigan Court of Appeals acted contrary to or unreasonably applied clearly established federal law,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority ruling. “The Michigan court found the shackling in Mr. Davenport’s case harmless for two reasons — both because of the ‘overwhelmin(g)’ evidence against him, and because jurors testified that his shackling did not affect their verdict.”
The court’s majority determined that federal courts must apply two tests in determining whether to allow prisoners to seek a new trial for such infractions. Gorsuch wrote that the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals erred by granting a new trial because it satisfied only one standard.