Aug 13, 2015

Judge's Aggressive Questioning Results in New Trial

Jackson Circuit Judge John McBain
A defendant in Jackson County was tried for murder in the 2010 death of his 3-month old son. The prosecutor's theory was that the father caused his infant son's death by shaking him or throwing him against a wall.

During the murder trial, the trial judge in People v Stevens questioned the accused and his expert witness in a highly demeaning and aggressive manner. Although Stevens was acquitted of first degree murder, he was convicted of the lesser charge of second degree murder.

His conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, held that the trial judge's manner and style of questioning the defendant was so aggressive as to suggest partiality and guilt on behalf of the accused. In reversing Stevens' conviction and remanding the case to a different trial judge last month, Justice Bernstein held that the trial judge's conduct deprived the defendant of a fair trial when he pierced the veil of judicial impartiality.

As you can imagine, this was a very fact-specific case with the following characteristics being displayed by the trial judge during the Stevens trial:
  • displaying disbelief, even unintentionally, of a fact or expert witness;
  • permitting a judge's own views to become known or implied to the jury;
  • exhibiting an unfavorable demeanor toward the accused or one of his witnesses;
  • asking a witness questions that are hostile, demeaning, suggestive or argumentative;
While taken individually, no one of these judicial missteps may cause an otherwise fair trial to become constitutionally defective. Taken as a whole, however, the Supreme Court was convinced that the judge's conduct in Stevens' trial deprived him of his right under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to a fair trial by jury.

So now, Stevens gets another bite at the apple before a different trial judge.

For his part, Jackson County Circuit Judge John G. McBain has gone to the press complaining that the Supreme Court's ruling in his case will have a chilling effect on trial judges that are permitted to question witnesses under our relatively new rules of trial procedure. Judge McBain believes his questions were appropriate because neither the prosecutor nor defense counsel asked the right questions.

In our view, given the liberty interests at stake in any felony jury trial, circuit court judges must take the utmost care to oversee fair and impartial trial proceedings. Even the slightest demonstration of annoyance can suggest partiality to a party; this is often fatal to the accused who is cloaked with the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Clarkston Legal

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