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People v. Chatman

Supreme Court of Michigan

March 9, 2018

RYAN LASHAWN CHATMAN, Defendant-Appellee.

         Wayne CC: 15-000181-FC

          Stephen J. Markman, Chief Justice Brian K. Zahra Bridget M. McCormack David F. Viviano Richard H. Bernstein Kurtis T. Wilder Elizabeth T. Clement, Justices


         On January 11, 2018, the Court heard oral argument on the application for leave to appeal the December 6, 2016 judgment of the Court of Appeals. On order of the Court, the application is again considered, and it is DENIED, because we are not persuaded that the question presented should be reviewed by this Court.

          Markman, C.J. (dissenting).

         I respectfully dissent from this Court's order denying leave to appeal. I instead would reverse the Court of Appeals' judgment because I believe that the Court of Appeals erred by holding that the trial judge's questioning of three witnesses exhibited bias against defendant, denying defendant a fair trial.

         "A trial judge's conduct deprives a party of a fair trial if a trial judge's conduct pierces the veil of judicial impartiality." People v Stevens, 498 Mich. 162, 170 (2015). "A judge's conduct pierces this veil and 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." Id. at 171. "In evaluating the totality of the circumstances, the reviewing court should inquire into a variety of factors, including the nature of the judicial conduct, the tone and demeanor of the trial judge, the scope of the judicial conduct in the context of the length and complexity of the trial and issues therein, the extent to which the judge's conduct was directed at one side more than the other, and the presence of any curative instructions." Id. at 172. As this Court has explained:

Identifying the nature of the conduct provides the starting point to evaluate whether the conduct overstepped the line of judicial impartiality. For instance, when evaluating a judge's questioning of witnesses, a reviewing court must first bear in mind that such interrogation is generally appropriate under MRE 614(b).[1] This Court has stated that the central object of judicial questioning should be to clarify. Therefore, it is appropriate for a judge to question witnesses to produce fuller and more exact testimony or elicit additional relevant information. [Id. at 173 (citations omitted).]

         In this case, it is undisputed that defendant shot the victim. The only issue at trial was whether defendant shot the victim in self-defense or by accident. The victim testified that defendant was playing with his gun, and the victim asked him to put his gun away. The victim also testified that he did not have a weapon and they were 10 feet apart when defendant shot him. Defendant, on the other hand, testified that he was not playing with his gun. Instead, defendant stated that the victim had asked him for money and, when he refused, the victim, who was highly intoxicated, became angry, shoved defendant, and threw a chair at him. Defendant testified that he pulled out his gun when the victim charged him with the chair and that he accidentally pulled the trigger during a subsequent struggle for the gun.

         The Court of Appeals held that the trial court's questions worked to highlight the prosecutor's theory of the case. For example, the court asked the victim whether he had a weapon, even though the victim had already testified that he was weaponless, and the court inquired of the victim how far apart he and the defendant had been when they were arguing, even though the victim had already testified that they were about 10 feet apart.[2]The trial court also asked Reverend Lumsie Fisher, who was in the house during the incident, whether he saw the victim with a weapon, which, according to the Court of Appeals, only "reinforced [the victim's] status as an unarmed victim."[3] People v Chatman, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued December 6, 2016 (Docket No. 328246), p 5. Finally, the trial court questioned Detective Nicole Bock, the fingerprint analyst who matched defendant's fingerprints to those on the gun. Bock testified that the matched fingerprint card indicated the name of Ryan Reynolds. The trial court asked Bock whether the fingerprints also matched defendant's (Ryan Chatman's) fingerprints or whether the name of "Ryan Reynolds" was synonymous with that of Ryan Chatman. Bock did not directly answer the court's questions but instead stated that it was not her job to make that determination. A different officer later testified that Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Chatman were indeed the same person.

         I do not believe that the trial court's questions of the witnesses demonstrated any bias. The fact that some of the questions were repetitive of the prosecutor's questions hardly demonstrates a bias. There is nothing inappropriate about a judge repeating questions to ensure that he or she understands the facts of a case correctly. The issue in this case was whether the shooting was the result of self-defense or an accident, and therefore it was critical to ensure that the judge and the jury understood who exactly possessed a weapon and who did not. Furthermore, there was nothing inappropriate about asking Fisher whether the victim was armed. Even though the victim had already testified that he was not armed, it was helpful to confirm that collaborating testimony had been presented on this issue.

         I also do not believe that all of the trial court's questions were pro-prosecutor in any coherent way. For example, the trial court asked the victim why the victim did not just leave when he saw that defendant was playing with a gun. He also asked the victim how the argument had escalated so quickly and whether he had said anything to defendant to provoke him. Finally, the trial court asked the victim, immediately after the victim indicated that the gun was a "nine millimeter, " whether he had ever fired a handgun. In my judgment, it appears that the trial court asked this question not to suggest that the victim must not have been the aggressor, but rather to question how the victim would have known that the gun was a "nine millimeter" if he had not had any prior experiences with handguns.

         I also believe that the trial court was genuinely confused about Bock's testimony[4]and was simply attempting to clarify the testimony given that Bock seemed to be testifying that a different person's fingerprints were found on the gun, even though all previous testimony had indicated that the gun was indisputably defendant's gun and that defendant was the only person seen with a gun.[5] See Stevens, 498 Mich. at 175-176 ("Judicial questioning might be more necessary when a judge is confronted with a difficult witness who refuses to answer questions posed by attorneys or repeatedly responds to those questions with unclear answers . . . ."). The Court of Appeals held that "[t]he tone of this trial judge in questioning this witness appears argumentative." Chatman, unpub op at 9. To the extent that this is true, I believe that is so simply because the trial court was justifiably confused by Bock's testimony.

         In addition, the judge's questioning of the three witnesses did not consume a significant part of the three-day trial.[6] The judge did not interrupt direct or cross-examination, but held his questions until after the parties had finished and then allowed further examination by the parties if they desired. Finally, the trial court instructed the jury that the judge's comments and questions were not evidence and that they were not meant to influence their votes or express a personal opinion. "Because it is well established that jurors are presumed to follow their instructions, a curative instruction will often ensure a fair trial despite minor or brief inappropriate conduct." Stevens, 498 Mich. at 177 (quotation marks, citation, and brackets omitted).

         The instant case is distinguishable from Stevens, in which we held that the trial judge's questioning of witnesses "pierce[d] the veil of judicial impartiality, " depriving defendant of the right to a fair trial. Id. at 170. To begin with, unlike in Stevens, defendant did not object to any of the trial court's questions. In addition, in Stevens, the trial judge questioned defendant's expert's qualifications, even though the judge had already endorsed him as an expert; several times asked questions that undermined the expert's credibility; and questioned the defendant in a manner that suggested disbelief of the defendant. None of that (or anything remotely similar) occurred in this ...

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