Juror's removal for misconduct did not violate Sixth Amendment

By Kelly Caplan
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
DETROIT, MI -- Removal of a holdout juror for her misconduct did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has decided in a case of first impression. The Sixth Circuit overturned a federal decision from the U.S. District Court in Detroit and upheld a decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals.

In Wofford v. Woods, the Sixth Circuit was guided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, 140 S. Ct. 1390 (2020), which said that “the right not to have a juror removed due to the juror’s opinions on the merits of the case is contained in the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of ‘trial by an impartial jury.’”

But the juror in this case was removed because of her conduct, not because she was a holdout; as such, the appellate court did not overlook the defendant’s Sixth Amendment claims.

“The [Court of Appeals] was free to require a showing of an actual constitutional violation. Implicitly, but clearly, it did so. As a result, we reverse,” wrote Judge Danny J. Boggs.

The matter stems from a 20-year-old cold murder case that was revived after advances in DNA testing.

Defendant Melvin Wofford was found guilty of a 1993 murder after a juror was removed and replaced.

The juror was holding out against conviction, but the judge removed her for misconduct. She violated a jury instruction not to discuss the case with anyone other than her fellow jurors when she hired an attorney to address the court about tensions in the jury room.

An alternate juror was seated; the jury returned a guilty verdict in about 90 minutes, and Wofford received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Wofford’s conviction, citing People v. Tate, 624 N.W.2d 524, 529 (Mich. Ct. App. 2001) in regards to juror removal, and also said the record showed the juror was removed because “she flagrantly violated the court’s instructions” by discussing deliberations with the attorney she hired.

After the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal, Wofford filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court in Detroit.

The Eastern District Court granted Wofford’s petition, saying that the Court of Appeals’ decision was “not entitled to deference under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,” or AEDPA, because it overlooked the defendant’s Sixth Amendment claims. As such, the removal of the juror violated his Sixth Amendment rights.

But while the appeal timely followed, the Eastern District issued a further order two months later — one which, while attempting to fix one problem, created two others, according to the Sixth Circuit.

The district court granted the state’s motion for a stay pending appeal, but denied Wofford’s motion to be released on bond. By doing so, the district court “substantially revised the basis” for its original ruling.

Boggs applied a legal analysis under the AEDPA, and found the defendant’s case lacking.

“Wofford needs a prophylactic rule, because without one he must lose: the Michigan courts found — and we have upheld the finding — that [the juror] was removed from the jury for cause,” he wrote. The Court of Appeals ruled that “‘flagrantly violat[ing] the court’s instructions by discussing the deliberations with a non-juror’ provided good cause for dismissal under Michigan law.”

Also, Wofford didn’t argue that the trial court lacked a just cause for removing the juror; in fact the appellate court rule that her dismissal was for misconduct, not because of her opinion on the case.

“There was, in other words, no actual constitutional violation here — only some factors that might make a prophylactically minded court concerned about one. Michigan chose not to go in that direction,” Boggs noted.

Finally, Boggs said, since AEDPA applies, the Sixth Circuit “cannot use Brown-Thomas-Symington as the benchmark to evaluate the decisions of the Michigan courts.”

This trio of cases — from the D.C., Second, and Ninth Circuits — held, in similar interpretations, that “if the record evidence discloses any reasonable possibility that the impetus for a juror’s dismissal stems from the juror’s views on the merits of the case, the court must not dismiss the juror.”

Thus, Wofford’s arguments should fail because he “has not cited a Supreme Court case here that would support the application of the Brown-Thomas-Symington rule or of any other analogous rule.”




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