Release Date: April 21, 2022
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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In a 6-3 decision announced today the U. S. Supreme Court reversed a 2020 ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which had held that because the defendant, Ervine Lee Davenport, was partially shackled during the trial his conviction was invalid.

At issue in the case of Brown v. Davenport was whether the jury was actually prejudiced due to the partial shackling and whether the Sixth Circuit used the proper standard to overturn the state courts, which had held that the shackling was harmless error.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) had joined the case to argue that the lower court’s ruling had used the wrong standard to evaluate the error and that the murderer’s conviction should be reinstated.

In the Court’s majority opinion, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “we cannot see how the Michigan Court of Appeals acted contrary to or unreasonably applied clearly established federal law. 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 case involves Davenport’s conviction for murdering Annette White. On January 13, 2007, White’s partially-clothed body was found in a Kalamazoo, Michigan, field. The previous evening, Davenport, a habitual felon, had agreed to drive White home from a friend’s house where they had been smoking crack cocaine. An autopsy later concluded that White had been strangled to death.

Following his arrest, Davenport, who is 6’5” and weighs 300 lbs., admitted strangling White, 5’2” and 103 lbs., but claimed he did so in self-defense. At trial experts testified that it would have taken roughly 5 minutes to strangle the victim to death, but that she would have blacked out in less than a minute. Evidence indicated that after Davenport killed the woman and disposed of her body, he went to her home and ate some food, then stole some of her belongings, including a stereo. Other evidence included Davenport’s own words that he “offed her” and testimony from witnesses of him bragging that if he had a problem with someone he would choke them. The combined evidence convinced the jury to convict Davenport of first-degree murder. He received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

During the trial, Davenport was partially shackled, which is unconstitutional without a showing of a specific need for shackling. After the trial, the jurors were interviewed and each one stated that the shackles did not influence their unanimous decision. On both direct appeal and federal habeas corpus, Davenport claimed that the shackles prejudiced the jury, but the state courts and federal district court disagreed and found it to be harmless error. On June 30, 2020, a divided panel of the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the state courts and the federal district court used the wrong standard to find the error harmless.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argued that it was the Sixth Circuit that used the wrong standard to overturn Davenport’s conviction. Federal law requires that court respect the findings of the state courts which, guided by U. S. Supreme Court precedent, held that the shackling, while an error, had no effect on the jury or the outcome of the trial and was therefore harmless.

“The Sixth Circuit in this case misapplied law and precedent to overturn the conviction of an admitted murderer. The Michigan state courts thoroughly evaluated and rejected Davenport’s claim that his partial shackling at trial affected the jury’s verdict. With today’s decision, the Supreme Court confirmed that federal habeas courts must give great deference to a state court’s determination of harmless error,” said Stapleton.

CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345