Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Not so fast! Court holds that the district court went too far in fashioning habeas relief.


On habeas review, what should a district court do when faced with clear evidence that a state court failed to properly address jurors' "extracurricular fact-finding" by conducting internet research?  In   Ewing v. Horton, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court went too far. 

After four days of strenuous deliberations -- during which it unsuccessfully asked the trial court to declare it deadlocked -- a jury convicted Darrell Ewing of first degree murder.  Approximately two months after the jury issued its verdict, however, one of the jurors filed an affidavit stating that two of her fellow jurors had searched for information on the Internet about Mr. Ewing using Google and Facebook.  Faced with this information, Mr. Ewing moved for a new trial and, in the alternative, for an evidentiary hearing regarding the newly presented information.  The trial court subsequently denied the motion, finding that the extraneous information was merely duplicative of the evidence presented against Mr. Ewing at trial.  The Michigan Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed, and the Michigan Supreme Court denied further review.

Having exhausted his state court remedies, Mr. Ewing filed a habeas action wherein he asserted the trial court violated his constitutional rights to a fair trial and impartial jury because of the jury's consideration of extraneous facts.  In addition, Mr. Ewing asked the district court to order a new trial or a hearing to determine the impact of the extraneous information presented to the jury.  The district court subsequently agreed and ordered that the state grant Mr. Ewing a new trial within ninety days or otherwise order his release.

On appeal, the parties conceded that the trial court had violated Mr. Ewing's constitutional rights.  However, they disagreed on the remedy.  Was Mr. Ewing entitled to a new trial or to the the Remmer hearing the trial court failed to hold?  The Sixth Circuit agreed with the latter.  Through no fault of his own, the Court concluded, Mr. Ewing had not developed sufficient evidence to prove the jury's consideration of extraneous information denied him his constitutional right to a fair trial and impartial jury.  Since the trial court denied Mr. Ewing such an opportunity, the Court held that the proper remedy was to remand the matter to the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing.

As noted in the majority opinion and in Judge Moore's dissent, the case also touched upon the appropriate discretion provided to district courts in fashioning relief in habeas cases and upon principles of federalism.  The Court concluded that the district court abused its discretion by imposing a new trial upon the state court without allowing it an opportunity to conduct a Remmer hearing.

This case presents examples of the pitfalls that juries face in an era of easily accessible information and about how the Sixth Circuit views principles of federalism in habeas proceedings.  In this instance, at least, the Court believed the district court went too far in fashioning relief.  

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