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People v. Cain

Supreme Court of Michigan

July 23, 2015

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BRANDON LEWIS CAIN, Defendant-Appellee

Argued March 11, 2015.

Page 830

Brandon L. Cain was convicted in the Wayne Circuit Court of two counts of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a); two counts of felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b); two counts of torture, MCL 750.85; two counts of unlawful imprisonment, MCL 750.349b; carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony, MCL 750.227b; and being a felon in possession of a firearm, MCL 750.224f. At the start of the trial, the court, Vonda R. Evans, J., stated to the jury, " I will now ask you to stand and swear to perform your duty to try the case justly and to reach a true verdict." The court clerk then proceeded to swear in the jury, but mistakenly read the oath given to prospective jurors before voir dire (that they would answer the questions concerning juror qualifications truthfully) rather than the juror's oath set forth in MCR 2.511(H)(1). There was no objection to the failure to administer the proper oath. Defendant raised the issue of failing to properly swear the jury for the first time on appeal, moving for peremptory reversal of his convictions. The Court of Appeals granted the motion in an unpublished order, entered May 2, 2014 (Docket No. 314342), concluding that the failure to properly swear the jury was a structural error requiring a new trial. The prosecution sought leave to appeal, which the Supreme Court granted. 497 Mich. 861, 852 N.W.2d 898 (2014) .

Chief Justice: Robert P. Young, Jr. Justices: Stephen J. Markman, Mary Beth Kelly, Brian K. Zahra, Bridget M. McCormack, David F. Viviano, Richard H. Bernstein. VIVIANO, J. (dissenting).

OPINION

Page 831

[498 Mich. 112] BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

Stephen J. Markman, J.

This case presents a fundamental question that appellate courts often confront: whether to afford relief on the basis of a claim of error not raised in the trial court. As a general rule, appellate courts will not grant relief on belated claims of error unless the proponent establishes, among other things, that the unpreserved error seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. Defendant here, who raised for the first time on appeal a claim that the trial court gave the wrong juror's oath, has failed to meet this burden. Our review of the record reveals that the jurors were conscious of the gravity of the task before them and the manner in which that task was to be carried out, the two primary purposes served by the juror's oath. Thus, we cannot say that the error here of failing to properly swear the jury seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. We therefore vacate the Court of Appeals' order holding to the contrary and reinstate defendant's convictions and sentences.

I. FACTS AND HISTORY

On February 28, 2012, Ashley Conaway and Abreeya Brown were abducted, tortured, and murdered. A month later, their bodies were found buried in a shallow grave, and defendant Brandon Cain and four others were charged in connection with the victims' deaths.[1] All five men were tried at a single trial with two separate juries, one for Cain and a codefendant [498 Mich. 113] and another for the remaining codefendants. After three days of jury voir dire, defendant's jury was selected. At the start of trial, the court instructed the jury, " I will now ask you to stand and swear to perform your duty to try the case justly and to reach a true verdict." The clerk proceeded to swear in the jury, but mistakenly read the oath given to prospective jurors before voir dire:

Page 832

The Clerk : You do solemnly swear or affirm that you will true answers make to such questions as may be put to you touching upon your qualifications to serve as jurors in the cause now pending before the Court [sic]?[2]

[ Jurors ]: (Collectively) I do.

There was no objection to the failure to administer the proper oath, although no one disputes that the oath given was incorrect.[3]

A lengthy trial followed, at the end of which the jury convicted defendant as charged. He was sentenced to mandatory terms of life in prison without parole for the murder convictions and various lesser term-of-years sentences for the remaining convictions. On appeal, defendant raised for the first time a challenge to the trial court's failure to properly swear the jury. Defendant's appellate counsel filed a motion for peremptory reversal of his convictions, which the Court of Appeals granted in an order, stating, " The failure to properly swear the jury is a structural error requiring a new trial. People v Allan, 299 Mich.App. 205; 829 N.W.2d 319 (2013)." People v Cain, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered May 2, 2014 (Docket No. 314342). The Court remanded " for a new trial with a properly sworn jury." Id.

[498 Mich. 114] The prosecutor then sought an appeal in this Court, and we granted leave to appeal on the following question:

[W]hether the Court of Appeals erred in determining that the failure to properly swear the jury, even in the absence of a timely objection, is a structural error requiring a new trial. [ People v Cain, 497 Mich. 861; 852 N.W.2d 898 (2014).]

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Whether the failure to properly swear the jury, even in the absence of a timely objection, requires that the defendant be afforded a new trial is a question of law, and such questions are reviewed de novo. People v Chenault, 495 Mich. 142, 159; 845 N.W.2d 731 (2014).

III. ANALYSIS

A. UNPRESERVED ERRORS

Defendant did not object to the trial court's failure to properly swear the jury. His claim on appeal and the Court of Appeals' decision to afford relief therefore implicate the general and longstanding rule in Michigan that " issues that are not properly raised before a trial court cannot be raised on appeal absent compelling or extraordinary circumstances." People v Grant, 445 Mich. 535, 546; 520 N.W.2d 123 (1994). The essential justification for this rule is fairness, both to litigants, who are best equipped to respond to alleged errors at the time they occur, and to the public, which must bear the cost of new trials that could have been avoided with a timely objection. See People v Carines, 460 Mich. 750, 764-765; 597 N.W.2d 130 (1999) (" [A] contemporaneous objection provides the trial court 'an opportunity to correct the error, which could thereby obviate the necessity of further legal proceedings and [498 Mich. 115] would be by far the best time to address a defendant's constitutional and nonconstitutional rights.'" ), quoting Grant, 445 Mich. at 551. As this Court recently explained in People v Vaughn, 491 Mich. 642, 653-654; 821 N.W.2d 288 (2012): " This Court 'has long recognized the importance of preserving issues for appellate

Page 833

review.' As a result, '[t]his Court disfavors consideration of unpreserved claims of error,' even unpreserved claims of constitutional error." (Citations omitted; alteration in original.)

The United States Supreme Court has also long recognized the importance of preserving issues for appellate review. As it has explained:

If an error is not properly preserved, appellate-court authority to remedy the error (by reversing the judgment, for example, or ordering a new trial) is strictly circumscribed. There is good reason for this; " anyone familiar with the work of courts understands that errors are a constant in the trial process, that most do not much matter, and that a reflexive inclination by appellate courts to reverse because of unpreserved error would be fatal."
This limitation on appellate-court authority serves to induce the timely raising of claims and objections, which gives the district court the opportunity to consider and resolve them. That court is ordinarily in the best position to determine the relevant facts and adjudicate the dispute. In the case of an actual or invited procedural error, the district court can often correct or avoid the mistake so that it cannot possibly affect the ultimate outcome. And of course the contemporaneous-objection rule prevents a litigant from " 'sandbagging'" the court--remaining silent about his objection and belatedly raising the error only if the case does not conclude in his favor. [ Puckett v United States, 556 U.S. 129, 134; 129 S.Ct. 1423; 173 L.Ed.2d 266 (2009) (citations omitted).]

This is why the United States Supreme Court and this Court adopted the plain-error test in United States v [498 Mich. 116] Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 735-737; 113 S.Ct. 1770; 123 L.Ed.2d 508 (1993), and Carines, 460 Mich. at 763, respectively, and why Vaughn, 491 Mich. at 655, held that " [a]lthough the violation of the right to a public trial is among the limited class of constitutional violations that are structural in nature," a defendant is still not entitled to relief unless he or she can satisfy the four requirements set forth in Carines.

Appellate courts may grant relief for unpreserved errors if the proponent of the error can satisfy the " plain error" standard, which has four parts (the " Carines prongs" ). The first three Carines prongs require establishing that (1) an error occurred, (2) the error was " plain" -- i.e., clear or obvious, and (3) the error affected substantial rights-- i.e., the outcome of the lower court proceedings was affected. Carines, 460 Mich. at 763. If the first three elements are satisfied, the fourth Carines prong calls upon an appellate court to " exercise its discretion in deciding whether to reverse," and (4) relief is warranted only when the court determines that the plain, forfeited error resulted in the conviction of an actually innocent defendant or " '" seriously affect[ed] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of [the] judicial proceedings" . . . .'" Id. (citation omitted; first alteration in original). While " [m]eeting all four prongs is difficult, 'as it should be,'" Puckett, 556 U.S. at 135, the plain-error test affords defendants sufficient protection because, as Vaughn, 491 Mich. at 655 n 42, explained:

[A]pplication of a plain-error analysis to unpreserved structural error does not deny that error " close consideration," . . . especially because the plain-error analysis . . . requires reviewing courts to consider carefully whether any forfeited error either resulted in the conviction of an [498 Mich. 117] actually innocent defendant or seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or

Page 834

public reputation of judicial proceedings. [Citations omitted.]

In the present case, the parties generally agree that the trial court's failure to properly swear the jury constitutes a plain error that satisfies the first and second Carines prongs.[4] The parties disagree, however, about the third and fourth

Page 835

Carines prongs. We need not [498 Mich. 118] resolve the parties' dispute over the third Carines prong because, even assuming defendant has established that element, we are not persuaded that the trial court's failure to properly swear the jury seriously [498 Mich. 119] affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings in this case and defendant does not even argue that he is actually innocent.

B. FOURTH CARINES PRONG

The fourth Carines prong embodies the general rule that an appellate court will not correct errors that a party failed to raise below. Reversal is required only in the most serious cases, those in which the error contributed to the conviction of an actually innocent person or otherwise undermined the fairness and integrity of the process to such a degree that an appellate court cannot countenance that error. See Olano, 507 U.S. at 736 (" [T]he discretion conferred by [the fourth prong of the plain-error standard] should be employed in those circumstances in which a miscarriage of justice would otherwise result." ) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

A recent example of this Court's application of the fourth Carines prong can be found in Vaughn. In Vaughn, this Court addressed an unpreserved claim that the trial court violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial when it closed the courtroom before jury voir dire. Agreeing with the defendant that his claim satisfied the first three prongs of the Carines test, we nonetheless concluded that reversal was not appropriate under the fourth Carines prong because the underlying purposes of the public-trial guarantee were alternatively maintained. Vaughn, 491 Mich. at 664-669. These goals, at least in the context of jury voir dire, included " ensuring a fair trial" and " reminding the prosecution and court of their responsibility to the accused and the importance of their functions[.]" Id. at 667. With these goals in mind, this Court reviewed the transcript of the proceedings [498 Mich. 120] and concluded " that both parties engaged in a vigorous voir dire process, that there were no objections to either party's peremptory challenges of potential jurors, and that each party expressed satisfaction with the ultimate jury chosen." Id. at 668. We also observed that the presence of the jury venire, which was derived from and representative of the public, helped to ensure that the proceedings were subject to a substantial degree of continued public review. Id. From our intensive review of the record, we could not conclude that the erroneous closure " seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings," id. at 668-669, and therefore declined to grant relief.[5] (Quotation marks and citation omitted.)

Page 836

[498 Mich. 121] As evidenced by Vaughn, the fourth Carines prong is meant to be applied on a case-specific and fact-intensive basis. See also Puckett, 556 U.S. at 142 (" [A] per se approach to plain-error review is flawed." ) (quotation marks and citation omitted). The operative inquiry is whether the trial court's error of failing to properly swear the jury in the particular case " seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings." Carines, 460 Mich. at 774. It is to that inquiry that we now turn.

C. APPLICATION

Consistently with Vaughn, we must first discern the purposes and goals of the juror's oath. The language of the juror's oath reads:

" Each of you do solemnly swear (or affirm) that, in this action now before the court, you will justly decide the questions submitted to you, that, unless you are discharged by the court from further deliberation, you will render a true verdict, and that you will render your verdict only on the evidence introduced and in accordance with the instructions of the court, so help you God." [MCR 2.511(H)(1). See also MCL 768.14.]

The oath imposes on the jurors three duties: (1) to " justly decide the questions submitted," (2) to " render a true verdict," and (3) to do these things " only on the evidence introduced and in accordance with the instructions of the court." Of course, the oath is more than a mere laundry list of juratorial duties. Instead,

[t]he oath represents a solemn promise on the part of each juror to do his duty according to the dictates of the law to see that justice is done. This duty is not just a final duty to render a verdict in accordance with the law, but the duty to act in accordance with the law at all stages of trial. The oath is administered to insure that the jurors pay attention [498 Mich. 122] to the evidence, observe the credibility and demeanor of the witnesses and conduct themselves at all times as befits one holding such an important position. [ People v Pribble, 72 Mich.App. 219, 224; 249 N.W.2d 363 (1976).]

Our review of the record in this case reveals that the error of failing to properly swear the jury did not undermine the proceedings with respect to the broader pursuits and values that the oath seeks to advance.

One of the primary purposes of the oath-- to impart to the members of the jury their duties as jurors-- was alternatively fulfilled in large part by the trial court's instructions prescribing the particulars of the jurors' duties. Immediately before the swearing of the oath, the trial court instructed the jurors, " I will now ask you to stand and swear to perform your duty to try the case justly and to reach a true verdict." ...


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