In People v. Stevens, No. 149380, the Michigan Supreme Court held that the defendant was entitled to a new trial, in front of a different judge, because the nature and tone of the judge’s demeanor during trial amounted to bias against the defendant. In reaching this conclusion, the court ruled that a judge’s conduct violates the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial when, in light of all of the circumstances of trial, it is likely that the judge’s conduct created the appearance of advocacy for or partiality against a party.
The defendant was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder, MCL 750.317, and second-degree child abuse, MCL 750.136b(3). The prosecution argued that the defendant’s infant son died after the defendant shook the baby or slammed the child against an object. Defendant countered that his son’s death was accidental. He stated that he accidently dropped his son after tripping on a trunk on the floor. Both sides offered expert opinion as to the possible cause of the victim’s death. During trial, the judge questioned both the defendant and the defendant’s expert witness. Defense counsel objected to the questioning, alleging that tone and content of the judge’s questions suggested the court’s partiality against the defendant. Defendant appealed his convictions and sentences. The Court of appeals affirmed trial court. Defendant sought leave to appeal.
The Michigan Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial before a different judge, reasoning that a judge’s conduct violates the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial when, considering the totality of the circumstances, it is reasonably likely that the judge’s conduct improperly influenced the jury by creating the appearance of advocacy or partiality against a party. The Michigan Supreme Court outlined several factors that created an appearance of advocacy or partiality against defendant, including the judge’s tone and demeanor, the scope of the judicial conduct, the length and complexity of the trial, the extent to which the judge’s conduct is directed more at one side than the other, and the presence of any curative instructions.