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BlogsPublications | June 28, 2017
2 minute read

MSC grants MOAA to consider whether trial judge’s questions inappropriately influenced jury’s verdict

The Michigan Supreme Court granted mini-oral argument in People v. Chatman, No. 155184 to address whether the questioning of witnesses by the trial judge “improperly influenced the jury by creating the appearance of advocacy and partiality” against the defendant.

A shooting took place on November 21, 2014. It was undisputed that the defendant shot the victim and fled the scene of the crime. It was also undisputed that prior to the occurrence, the defendant and victim were in a heated argument. However, their stories differ in terms of what took place during that argument that led to the shooting. The victim alleged that the argument ensued because the defendant was playing with a handgun. The victim further testified that, after he asked defendant to stop, defendant slapped him and eventually shot him. On the other hand, the defendant claimed that he was not playing with a handgun but instead was arguing with the victim because the defendant had refused to lend the victim money. The defendant claimed that the victim was angry about the refusal and retaliated, causing the defendant to shoot the victim during their struggle to take control of the defendant’s gun. At trial, the jury found the defendant guilty on several counts. The defendant appealed arguing, in part, that the judge deprived him of a fair trial when he extensively questioned witnesses and exhibited a bias against him.

The Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s convictions and remanded to a different judge for a new trial. The court cited People v. Stevens in their holding that trial judges are allowed to question witnesses for clarification, but are not to use those questions to make their own views apparent to the jury. However, in this case, the court found for the appellee because the questions by the trial judge inappropriately stressed the prosecutor’s theory, and there was no subsequent instruction to “alleviate the [obvious] appearance of advocacy for the prosecution.” Therefore, the Court held based on the totality of the circumstances that the judge’s questioning had “pierced the veil of judicial impartiality warranting reversal of defendant’s convictions.” 

The case is now on appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, and that court has asked for briefs from both parties by July 21, 2017.