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Double Jeopardy: Habeas Review of “Manifest Necessity for Mistrial”

Renico v. Lett, USSC No. 09-338, 5/3/10

The state court’s conclusion of manifest necessity for mistrial where the foreperson reported inability to reach unanimity wasn’t unreasonable, hence grant of habeas relief is vacated:

… (T)rial judges may declare a mistrial “whenever, in their opinion, taking all the circumstances into consideration, there is a manifest necessity” for doing so. Id., at 580. The decision to declare a mistrial is left to the “sound discretion” of the judge, but “the power ought to be used with the greatest caution, under urgent circumstances, and for very plain and obvious causes.” Ibid.

The legal standard applied by the Michigan Supreme Court in this case was whether there was an abuse of the “broad discretion” reserved to the trial judge. … Because AEDPA authorizes federal courts to grant relief only when state courts act unreasonably, it follows that “[t]he more general the rule” at issue—and thus the greater the potential for reasoned disagreement among fair-minded judges—“the more leeway [state] courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” Ibid.; see also Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U. S. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op., at 11).

The Michigan Supreme Court’s adjudication involved a straightforward application of our longstanding precedents to the facts of Lett’s case. The court cited our own double jeopardy cases—from Perez to Washington —elaborating upon the “manifest necessity” standard for granting a mistrial and noting the broad deference that appellate courts must give trial judges in deciding whether that standard has been met in any given case. Lett, 466 Mich., at 216–222, 644 N. W. 2d, at 749–752. It then applied those precedents to the particular facts before it and found no abuse of discretion, especially in light of the length of deliberations after a short and uncomplicated trial, the jury notes suggesting heated discussions and asking what would happen “if we can’t agree,” and—“[m]ost important”—“the fact that the jury foreperson expressly stated that the jury was not going to reach a verdict.” Id., at 223, 644 N. W. 2d, at 753. In these circumstances, it was reasonable for the Michigan Supreme Court to determine that the trial judge had exercised sound discretion in declaring a mistrial.

Meta-message: if you want to prevail in this sort of situation, make sure you do so direct appeal. The (first) trial lasted 9 hours and deliberations for 4 hours before the foreperson reported deadlock. The trial judge merely took the foreperson at her word, indeed, the Lett majority concedes it “not implausible” that the judge inappropriately pressured the foreperson to say that deadlock was inexorable. More: it is a “close” question as to whether the grant of mistrial was “wrong.” But that is not enough, given straitened habeas review, to say that the state court’s conclusion was unreasonable:

Given the foregoing facts, the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision upholding the trial judge’s exercise of discretion—while not necessarily correct—was not objectively unreasonable. 3 Not only are there a number of plausible ways to interpret the record of Lett’s trial, but the standard applied by the Michigan Supreme Court—whether the judge exercised sound discretion—is a general one, to which there is no “plainly correct or incorrect” answer in this case. Yarborough, 541 U. S., at 664; see also Knowles, supra , at ___ (slip op., at 11). The Court of Appeals’ ruling in Lett’s favor failed to grant the Michigan courts the dual layers of deference required by AEDPA and our double jeopardy precedents.

This doesn’t mean that Lett won’t be cited by future courts on direct appeal, only that it is incumbent on the litigant to remind that sustaining a discretionary act on habeas review doesn’t compel sustaining it on direct appeal.

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