Reiner v. Woods, 955 F.3d 549 (6th Cir. 2020), Habeas Win on Harmless Error Analysis

This is a fascinating case (for those of us who actually enjoy following habeas wins) because the Court decided the issue on the harmless error prong of its analysis (one does not see this too often).   The victim here was murdered at night by a home invader.  Jewelry was stolen from her home.  Petitioner (identified in media accounts as the “accused devil-horned tattoo murderer”), who had pawned items at this particular pawn shop before, pawned items at the store late at night on the date the victim was murdered.  The pawn shop owner, who spoke to detectives investigating the murder, informed them that Petitioner had pawned the items, and identified the particular items pawned.

The pawn shop owner, however, died before trial, and the parties agreed that Petitioner never had an opportunity to cross-examine him.  The use of these statements then violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment which provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”  The Confrontation Clause bars “admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.”  Crawford v. Washington, 41 U.S. 36, 53-54 (2004).  Statements are “testimonial” “when the circumstances objectively indicate… that the primary purpose of the interrogation is to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution,” rather than to enable the assistance of law enforcement to respond to an ongoing emergency.  Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006).   

Here, the lower court did, in fact, point to additional circumstantial evidence that it maintained also supported Petitioner’s conviction, even if the court did concede the admission of the pawn shop owner’s testimony violated the Confrontation Clause.  For instance, there was a receipt from the pawn shop from the Petitioner on an earlier date indicating that Petitioner had used that pawn shop before.  Also, there was an eyewitness who saw the defendant in the area of the crime on the night of the crime. There was another witness who indicated Petitioner said he had been visiting a girl in that area, but no one could identify her, and then there was a statement by Petitioner following his arrest that could have been construed as pertaining to this crime.  The lower court found that, based on this evidence, “it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury” could have found Petitioner guilty, even in the absence of the improper statements. 

The Sixth Circuit disagreed.  Applying the Brecht standard (that the violation had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury’s verdict), the Court found that the pawn shop’s statements “went to the very heart of the prosecutor’s case.”  In fact, the prosecutor relied on those improper statements during both opening and closing statements.  The Court also looked at the jury’s actions.  During deliberations they asked for several exhibits, including the rings from the pawn shop. The Court found then that the jurors attached significance to this testimony.  The Court also noted the lack of physical evidence in this case.  In short, the state’s case was materially weak and under these facts, the Court granted habeas relief.

A couple of interesting points about this case.  Petitioner filed his habeas petition pro se. He appealed the denial of his petition pro se.  It was not until the Sixth Circuit started to review the case that it appointed counsel for Petitioner (and very, very fine counsel at that).  The case also presents an object lesson in how to argue the Brecht standard so Petitioner counsel should definitely give this case a thorough read if the issue is one of error prejudice. 

To date, it does not appear Petitioner has been retried and he remains in the Macomb County Detention Center.