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People v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Michigan

July 23, 2018

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
JUSTLY ERNEST JOHNSON, Defendant-Appellant. PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
KENDRICK SCOTT, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued April 11, 2018

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

         Syllabus

         In Docket No. 154128, Justly E. Johnson was convicted following a bench trial in the Wayne Circuit Court, Prentis Edwards, J., of first-degree felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b), assault with intent to rob while armed, MCL 750.89, and carrying or possessing a firearm when committing or attempting to commit a felony, MCL 750.227b. In Docket No. 154130, Kendrick Scott was convicted following a jury trial in the Wayne Circuit Court, Prentis Edwards, J., of the same offenses as Johnson. On the evening of May 8, 1999, the victim, her husband, and the victim's three children, including Charmous Skinner Jr. (Skinner), who was 8 years old at the time, went to see a movie, "Life," at a drive-in theater. On the way home, the family stopped at a house on the east side of Detroit. The victim, who was driving, waited in the van with the children while her husband went inside. While inside, her husband heard a noise, which turned out to be gunfire, and he went to the front door just in time to see both the victim's van speeding away and a man fleeing on foot. The victim, who had been struck in the chest by a single gunshot, drove the van to a nearby gas station, where she stopped and collapsed out of the vehicle. She later died at the hospital. Two individuals who were in the same neighborhood at the time of the crime, Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson, implicated defendants in the shooting and testified at both trials. Both defendants were convicted, and both defendants appealed in the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed Johnson's convictions, and the same Court of Appeals panel vacated on double-jeopardy grounds Scott's conviction of assault with intent to rob while armed but otherwise affirmed his convictions and sentences. Defendants sought leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court denied both applications. Johnson subsequently filed three motions for relief from judgment. In his second motion for relief from judgement, Johnson presented, as a claim of newly discovered evidence, a recantation by Burnette and an affidavit signed by one of Jackson's relatives indicating that Jackson lied at the trials. The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court denied leave to appeal. In his fourth motion for relief from judgment, Johnson asserted as a claim of newly discovered evidence that Skinner could attest that neither defendant was the shooter. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing. Johnson appealed in the Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals denied relief in an unpublished order entered May 30, 2013 (Docket No. 311625). Scott also filed his first and only motion for relief from judgment, raising the same claim concerning Skinner along with the claims of newly discovered evidence that Johnson had made in his previous motions for relief from judgment. The trial court also denied Scott's motion without a hearing. Scott sought leave to appeal in the Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals denied relief in an unpublished order entered November 5, 2013 (Docket No. 317915). Both defendants sought leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court remanded the cases to the Court of Appeals for consideration as on leave granted, directing the Court of Appeals to first remand the cases to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing. People v Johnson, 497 Mich. 897 (2014); People v Scott, 497 Mich. 897 (2014). The Court of Appeals consolidated the cases and remanded to the trial court, retaining jurisdiction. At the evidentiary hearing, Skinner testified that he remembered the shooter's face and that the shooter's facial characteristics did not match those of either defendant. Burnette also testified at the evidentiary hearing, recanting much of the testimony he had given at defendants' trials. Additionally, although Jackson had died in 2008, his cousin testified that Jackson told her that he had lied on the stand. The trial court, James A. Callahan, J., denied both defendants' motions for relief from judgment, concluding that there was no reasonable probability of a different result if Skinner testified on retrial. The trial judge stated that Skinner, then 8 years old, would have been asleep in the car and could not have witnessed the shooting or, alternatively, if Skinner had not been asleep, he would not have been capable of seeing anyone outside the vehicle in the dark. The trial judge also questioned Skinner's overall credibility because Skinner had previously been convicted of perjury in an unrelated matter. Finally, the trial judge stated that he found it difficult to believe that Skinner could remember what the assailant looked like when the judge himself had difficulty remembering what his deceased relatives looked like. With regard to Burnette's and Jackson's testimony, the trial court stated that the testimony had been consistent on four different occasions. Defendants moved for peremptory reversal, and the Court of Appeals, Stephens, P.J., and Fort Hood, J. (Wilder, J., dissenting), denied the motion. The Court of Appeals, Saad and O'Brien, JJ. (Servitto, J., concurring), then affirmed the trial court's ruling in an unpublished per curiam opinion, issued May 31, 2016 (Docket No. 311625). Although the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court's factual finding that Skinner had to have been asleep at the time of the shooting, the Court of Appeals nevertheless found that the trial court did not clearly err by finding Skinner's testimony unreliable. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that the recantations were not part of the Supreme Court's remand order and that the trial court had thus erred by considering these other claims. Even if the recantations could be considered, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court correctly determined that the recantations lacked any substantive weight. Defendants each sought leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court granted leave in both cases, ordering that the cases be argued together. People v Johnson, 501 Mich. 914 (2017); People v Scott, 501 Mich. 914 (2017).

         In an opinion by Justice Bernstein, joined by Chief Justice Markman and Justices Viviano and Clement, the Supreme Court held:

         The newly discovered evidence of Skinner's testimony in conjunction with the other evidence that would be presented on retrial would make a different result probable and therefore entitled both defendants to new trials. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals judgment was reversed in part and the cases were remanded to the Wayne Circuit Court for new trials.

         1. MCR 6.508(D)(3) provides that a court may not grant relief to a defendant if the motion alleges grounds for relief that could have been previously raised, unless the defendant demonstrates both good cause for failing to raise such grounds earlier as well as actual prejudice. In this case, the claim of newly discovered evidence pertaining to Skinner's eyewitness account could not have been raised on appeal from defendants' convictions or in a prior motion for relief from judgment because defendants did not know that Skinner saw the shooting until 2011. Therefore, MCR 6.508(D)(3) did not bar the claims regarding Skinner's account.

         2. In order for a new trial to be granted on the basis of newly discovered evidence, a defendant must show that (1) the evidence itself, not merely its materiality, was newly discovered, (2) the newly discovered evidence was not cumulative, (3) the party could not, using reasonable diligence, have discovered and produced the evidence at trial, and (4) the new evidence makes a different result probable on retrial. In this case, it was undisputed that defendants satisfied their burden under the first three factors; therefore, the issue was whether the newly discovered evidence in the form of Skinner's testimony would make a different result probable on retrial. To determine whether newly discovered evidence makes a different result probable on retrial, a trial court must first determine whether the evidence is credible. If the court determines that a reasonable juror could have found the newly discovered evidence to be credible, the court then considers the impact of that evidence in conjunction with the evidence that would be presented on retrial.

         3. In determining whether newly discovered evidence is credible, the trial court should consider all relevant factors tending to either bolster or diminish the veracity of the witness's testimony. A trial court's function is limited when reviewing newly discovered evidence, as it is not the ultimate fact-finder; should a trial court grant a motion for relief from judgment, the case would be remanded for retrial, not dismissal. A trial court's credibility determination is concerned with whether a reasonable juror could find the testimony credible on retrial. If a witness's lack of credibility is such that no reasonable juror would consciously entertain a reasonable belief in the witness's veracity, then the trial court should deny a defendant's motion for relief from judgment. However, if a witness is not patently incredible, a trial court's credibility determination must bear in mind what a reasonable juror might make of the testimony, and not what the trial court itself might decide were it the ultimate fact-finder. In this case, the trial court found that Skinner was not a credible witness. The trial court's finding that Skinner could not have witnessed the shooting because Skinner must have been asleep was not rooted in anything in the record, and therefore the trial court clearly erred by finding that Skinner had been asleep during the shooting. The trial court also clearly erred to the extent that the trial judge supported his finding that Skinner could not possibly remember the shooter's face on the basis of the judge's own ability to remember the faces of his deceased relatives. Because the focus is on whether a reasonable juror could credit Skinner's testimony, the trial judge's focus on his own personal gaps in memory was inappropriate. Moreover, the trial court failed to acknowledge the expert testimony of a psychologist, who testified that it would not be impossible for a child of Skinner's age to recall specific details from a traumatic event several years later. The trial court additionally found that Skinner was not credible because Skinner could not have seen the shooter; however, the trial court failed to consider whether a reasonable juror could have believed that, depending on the angle of approach, the darkness of the street, and the lighting conditions in the car, Skinner might have been able to make out defining characteristics of the shooter's face. Furthermore, although it was appropriate for the trial court to take into account Skinner's prior perjury conviction, that conviction was obtained under circumstances very different from the case at hand, and a reasonable juror could have credited the fact that Skinner lacked any motive to lie in this case. When considering Skinner's testimony in its entirety, it was clear that his testimony was not wholly incredible and that a reasonable juror could find his testimony worthy of belief on retrial. Therefore, the trial court clearly erred when it concluded that Skinner's testimony was entirely incredible.

         4. In examining whether newly discovered evidence makes a different result probable on retrial, the trial court must consider the evidence that was previously introduced at trial. The trial court must also consider the evidence that would be admitted at retrial. In this case, the trial court failed to properly assess the effect of the newly discovered evidence in conjunction with the evidence that was presented at the original trials. Skinner testified that neither defendant was the shooter, identifying physical characteristics of the shooter that were completely contrary to the physical characteristics of both defendants, and this testimony was only strengthened when considered in conjunction with the evidence presented at the previous trials. Additionally, the trial court judge who presided over the motions for relief from judgment was not the same judge who presided over the preliminary examination or the original trials and therefore was functionally in the same position as an appellate court where the credibility of witnesses at the preliminary examination and the original trials was concerned; accordingly, the trial court's determination that Burnette's trial testimony was credible did not need to be afforded any deference. Furthermore, the trial court's finding that Burnette's previous testimony was consistent and compelling was not supported by the record: the prosecutor had to repeatedly refresh Burnette's memory at both Johnson's trial and at the preliminary examination, there were significant inconsistencies between the testimonies Burnette gave at the two different trials, and Burnette was unable to give a coherent time line as to what happened on the night in question. Moreover, the trial court failed to note that Burnette's and Jackson's testimonies conflicted with one another and that both witnesses admitted to consuming copious amounts of alcohol and marijuana during the times that defendants purportedly made incriminating statements. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals erred by failing to examine the evidence presented at the original trials. When Skinner's testimony is considered in conjunction with the other evidence presented at the original trials, a different result is reasonably probable on retrial.

         5. While consideration of Skinner's testimony alone would make a different result probable on retrial due to the weaknesses of the prosecutor's witnesses, the evidence that would be presented at retrial may be considered, which included Burnette's and Jackson's recantation testimony. Even though Johnson already raised the recantation evidence in a prior motion for relief from judgment, and therefore was barred from raising the recantations as an independent ground for relief, the court rules do not prohibit considering this evidence in the context of the claim that Skinner's testimony would make a different result probable on retrial. The Court of Appeals erred by holding that the recantation evidence was not part of the Supreme Court's remand order. In considering the weight of these recantations, the trial court was correct to approach the recantations with suspicion. However, given the inherent weakness of Burnette's prior testimony at the trials, his recantation should not be viewed with as much suspicion as is generally accorded, and without his testimony, there is scant other evidence to establish that defendants committed the crime. Also, while Jackson's trial testimony was not inherently as weak as Burnette's trial testimony, it was also not as material as Burnette's trial testimony. Therefore, the recantation testimony supported the conclusion that a different result is probable on retrial.

         Court of Appeals judgment reversed in part; cases remanded to the trial court for new trials.

         Justice Zahra, dissenting, would have held that the trial court did not clearly err by determining that Skinner's testimony was not credible. The trial court did not fail to properly assess the effect of the newly discovered evidence in conjunction with the evidence that was presented at the original trials. Contrary to the majority's assertion, Judge Callahan, who was the judge presiding over the postjudgment matters in defendants' cases, did not position himself as an appellate court where the credibility of witnesses at the preliminary examination and the original trials was concerned. The majority failed to give regard to the special opportunity the circuit court judge (Judge Edwards) and the district court judge had to assess and weigh the credibility of the witnesses who appeared before them. Judge Edwards found that the witnesses, particularly Burnette, were fearful and attempted to tailor their testimony to provide Johnson an alibi. Because of this, Judge Edwards rejected this equivocating and inconsistent aspect of the witnesses' testimony, and rightly so. Judge Callahan relied on four reasons to conclude that Skinner was not credible: (1) Skinner was only 8 years old at the time of the murder and his memory some 16 years later could not be certain; (2) it would have been incredibly difficult for Skinner to be inside a car at night and see someone outside the vehicle when the only illumination was from the vehicle's interior dome light, especially when considering that both the victim and the car door were between Skinner and the shooter; (3) Skinner had already been convicted for perjury; and (4) in any event, Skinner likely would have been asleep inside the car at the time of the murder. The first three of these four findings clearly called Skinner's credibility into question and were not clearly erroneous; accordingly, Justice Zahra would have held that Judge Callahan did not abuse his discretion by denying defendants a new trial. Additionally, even assuming that Skinner was credible, Skinner's testimony would not make a different result on retrial probable given the evidence that defendants made threats to Burnette and Jackson in connection with their testimony and that Judge Edwards found Burnette and Jackson to be credible. A comprehensive examination of the evidence presented at defendants' original proceedings demonstrated that Judge Edwards sifted through the testimony and discounted the arguably equivocal and inconsistent testimony, instead finding the circumstantial evidence against defendants to be persuasive. Accordingly, Justice Zahra would have held that the newly discovered evidence was not credible and that even assuming the evidence was credible, the evidence would not have made a difference on retrial.

          Justice McCormack did not participate because of her prior involvement in this case as counsel for a party.

          Justice Wilder did not participate because he was on the Court of Appeals panel that decided defendants' motions for peremptory reversal.

          BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH (except McCormack and Wilder, JJ.)

          OPINION

          Bernstein, J.

         In these consolidated cases, we consider whether the trial court erred by declining to grant new trials following defendants' motions for relief from judgment. After weighing the evidence presented at the trials along with defendants' claims of newly discovered evidence, we hold that the evidence in the form of testimony given by Charmous Skinner Jr. (Skinner) would make a different result probable on retrial. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals in part and remand these cases to the trial court for new trials.[1]

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         These cases arise from the murder of Lisa Kindred. Between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on May 9, 1999, Lisa was shot and killed while in her vehicle with her three children-Decola (newborn), Shelby (2 years old), and Skinner (8 years old). Earlier in the evening, Lisa, her husband (William Kindred), and her three children had gone to see a movie, "Life," at a drive-in theater in Dearborn, Michigan. On their way home, William announced that he wanted to make a stop on the east side of Detroit to talk to his sister's boyfriend, Verlin Miller, about purchasing a motorcycle. Lisa, who was driving, parked their minivan across the street from Miller's home and waited in the van with the children while William went inside. At one point, Lisa went to the door of the house and asked William to come back to the van, but William told her that he would be out shortly, and Lisa returned to the van. Soon afterward, William heard a noise, which turned out to be gunfire, and went to the front door just in time to see both Lisa's van speeding away and a man fleeing on foot. William chased after the fleeing individual but failed to catch him.

         Having been struck by the gunfire, Lisa drove the van to a nearby gas station, stopped, and then collapsed out of the vehicle. She later died at the hospital. The medical examiner's report revealed that Lisa's death was caused by a single gunshot wound to the chest. The report also revealed that small wounds on her body were consistent with her having been shot through an intervening medium. The driver's window had been shattered, but nothing had been stolen from the van. The children were not harmed, and they were still in the vehicle when the police arrived at the scene. A .22 caliber spent casing was found in the street at the scene of the shooting.

         Two individuals who were in the same neighborhood at the time of the crime, Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson, implicated defendants Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott in the shooting.[2] All four individuals knew each other from the same neighborhood. Johnson and Scott were tried separately-Johnson by bench trial and Scott by jury trial. Judge Prentis Edwards presided over both trials. Burnette and Jackson testified at both trials.

         A. JOHNSON'S BENCH TRIAL

         In both trials, Burnette was the prosecutor's key witness. However, it is difficult to construct a linear time line of events from the night of the shooting according to Burnette's testimony, given the many inconsistencies in his testimony. According to Burnette, he was initially with both defendants the evening before the shooting. Burnette testified that Scott had discussed "planning something" but that Johnson had not said anything. However, when the prosecutor pointed out that Burnette had previously testified at the preliminary examination that both defendants had discussed plans for that evening with him, Burnette agreed that such a conversation had occurred. Burnette also failed to recall whether defendants had mentioned planning to "hit[] a lick," which he explained meant robbing someone. The prosecutor refreshed Burnette's memory with his preliminary examination testimony, and Burnette then clarified that defendants had discussed hitting a lick.

         Burnette then testified that his father picked him up at 10:30 p.m. Burnette claimed that he again met up with both defendants around 2:30 a.m., at which point Johnson told him that Scott had shot a lady because she owed Scott money. However, Burnette also testified that he and Johnson drove around with an individual named Mike at some point in the evening. It is unclear from Burnette's testimony whether this drive took place earlier in the evening, before Burnette's father picked him up and before the shooting, or whether it occurred after Burnette met up again with defendants at 2:30 a.m. Burnette testified that Mike drove Johnson and him around and that Mike eventually dropped them both off when their plans fell through. At one point during his testimony, Burnette stated that he was dropped off at the same gas station that Lisa drove to. Burnette also testified that he saw an ambulance and police vehicles at the gas station, suggesting that this took place after the shooting. However, Burnette's testimony changed several times as to whether Johnson was with him when he saw the ambulance at the gas station. Burnette also testified that, alternatively, he was dropped off elsewhere in Detroit, that he did not return to the gas station, and that he did not see an ambulance there.

         Burnette further testified that when he met up with both defendants at 2:30 a.m., all three of them were smoking and drinking. Burnette testified that he had consumed 32 bottles of Budweiser and a half pint of Hennessy the day of the shooting, in addition to smoking 10 marijuana cigars. Burnette claimed that, while he was in this state, Johnson told him that Scott had shot a woman because she owed Scott money. Burnette also testified that he had first learned that a woman had been shot when he went to purchase marijuana earlier that evening and saw an ambulance and police officers in the neighborhood. It is unclear from Burnette's testimony whether this was related to his purported sighting of an ambulance and police officers at the gas station, or whether this was a separate incident. In any case, Burnette later contradicted himself yet again by stating that defendants were the ones who first informed him that someone had been shot.

         Burnette also testified unclearly about whether his knowledge of the victim's name came from defendants or the police. Burnette agreed that, in his police statement, he stated that the woman who owed Scott money was named "Lisa." However, when Burnette was asked whether he knew anyone by that name, he testified that he did not. When he was asked if the police had given him that name, Burnette said that they had.

         Burnette claimed that he saw both defendants with guns that night, an AK-47 and a .22 caliber rifle, albeit only after his memory was refreshed. Burnette testified that he saw Johnson place a gun in a vehicle and that Scott, sometime around 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. the morning after the shooting, placed the other gun in a different vehicle. Burnette went to sleep in Scott's car, where the police later found him. Burnette was taken in for questioning, and he testified that the police told him that he would be charged with a homicide offense.

         Turning to Jackson's testimony, Jackson stated that, in the early morning hours on the day of the shooting, he woke up in his grandmother's home after hearing a gunshot.[3]When Jackson eventually went outside to see what had happened, he saw a police car in front of the field next door to his grandmother's house. Jackson testified that when he looked down the street, he saw Scott standing on his girlfriend's porch and saw Scott hand his girlfriend something long and covered in clothing. Jackson testified that he believed this object to be a dog leash. Shortly thereafter, the police took Jackson and Scott downtown for questioning, and Jackson said that he eventually returned home while the police kept Scott at the station. A police officer confirmed that Scott was still in custody when the officer reported to work between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. that morning.

         Sometime after Jackson returned to his grandmother's house, Johnson came over. Jackson alleged that Johnson was drunk when they spoke. But Jackson admitted that he, too, had consumed marijuana and three 40-ounce bottles of beer. It is unclear when, and in what time frame, Jackson consumed these substances. Jackson also acknowledged that he sometimes saw and heard things that were not there, that he was recently released from the hospital after being admitted for mental health issues, and that he was taking prescription medications for his mental health conditions when the shooting occurred. In contrast to Burnette's testimony, Jackson testified that Johnson, not Scott, had admitted to "hit[ting] a lick" and that Johnson "messed up and had to shoot." However, Jackson clarified that the phrase "hit a lick" could mean a variety of things, only one of which was to rob someone.[4] Johnson also told Jackson that this occurred in the field next to Jackson's grandmother's home and that Scott was with him. Later, police arrived at Jackson's home and arrested Johnson. Sometime after Johnson's arrest, Jackson was held again at the police station. Jackson claimed that, while he was in custody, Johnson verbally threatened him for what he had told the police.

         Like Burnette, Jackson's testimony also suffered from some inconsistencies, most notably whether Jackson was threatened by the police. On cross-examination, Jackson testified that the police had not threatened him. However, Jackson later testified that the second time he was at the police station, the police scared him, and he felt that if he did not come forward with "the truth," the police would try to pin the murder on him.

         Johnson testified on his own behalf, denying any involvement in the shooting. Johnson testified that he met up with Scott and Burnette at Scott's home at around 9:30 p.m. the evening before the shooting. Johnson testified that he and Burnette were then continuously together that evening. Johnson did not testify as to the first purported conversation between him, Scott, and Burnette. Johnson testified that he later drove around with Mike and Burnette and that Johnson and Burnette were ultimately dropped off at the gas station at around 1:00 or 1:15 a.m., where Johnson saw several police cars gathered. From there, Burnette and Johnson returned to Scott's home, and Johnson told Scott that he had seen the police at the gas station. Johnson's girlfriend then picked him up around 2:30 a.m. Johnson confirmed that the next day he went over to Jackson's house, but Johnson denied speaking to Jackson about hitting a lick.

         Judge Edwards found Johnson guilty of first-degree felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b), assault with intent to rob while armed, MCL 750.89, and carrying or possessing a firearm when committing or attempting to commit a felony (felony-firearm), MCL 750.227b. Johnson was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the first-degree murder conviction, 20 to 30 years' imprisonment for assault with intent to rob while armed, and a consecutive two-year sentence for the felony-firearm conviction.

         B. SCOTT'S JURY TRIAL

         At Scott's trial, Burnette's testimony was more internally consistent but differed in large portions from his testimony at Johnson's bench trial. Burnette again testified that on the night of the shooting, he was with both defendants at Scott's house when defendants mentioned that they were going to hit a lick. Burnette then testified that his father picked him up at 10:30 p.m. and that they were together until around 2:00 a.m., at which point Burnette went back to Scott's house and met up with both defendants. Notably missing from Burnette's testimony was any indication that he had spent time that night driving around with Johnson and Mike. Burnette also did not mention having seen any ambulances or police cars in the neighborhood.

         As before, Burnette testified that, at Scott's house, all three of the men were drinking and smoking marijuana and that he had personally consumed 32 bottles of Budweiser and a half pint of Hennessy, in addition to smoking 10 marijuana cigars. Burnette testified that Scott told him that "they had shot a lady" because she would not give them any money, while Johnson told him that only Scott "had shot the lady." This time, Burnette claimed he distinctly remembered that this was the first time he learned a lady had been shot, not when he saw police at the gas station. Burnette testified that both defendants told him that the shooting happened at the gas station. Burnette also testified that Scott was the one who told him that the woman's name was "Lisa" and that Johnson told him that Johnson and Scott had an "AK and a rifle." According to Burnette, his conversation with Johnson and Scott lasted until 3:00 a.m. or 4:30 a.m., at which point Johnson left when his girlfriend arrived to pick him up.

         Consistent with his prior testimony, Burnette claimed that he went to sleep in Scott's car, where he was later awakened by the police. Burnette then gave conflicting testimony regarding whether the police threatened to charge him in connection with Lisa's murder. He first claimed that the police did not threaten him but then admitted that he had previously testified that the police indicated they were going to charge him if he did not state that defendants had killed Lisa. Burnette also testified that people in the neighborhood had threatened him for speaking to the police and testifying.[5]

         Jackson testified consistently with his testimony at Johnson's trial that he heard a gunshot, went outside to see a police vehicle, saw Scott, and was questioned by the police that evening along with Scott. Jackson further explained that when the police questioned him and Scott after the shooting, Scott told the police that he saw two men walking through his girlfriend's yard and that both men had rifles. Jackson said the police then took him and Scott downtown for further questioning at around 1:15 a.m. Jackson then returned to his grandmother's home, and he was unaware if Scott was also released from custody. Johnson visited the following morning. Jackson testified that he had started drinking before Johnson came over, but Jackson did not mention how much he drank and did not mention that he had ingested any other substances, like prescription medicine or marijuana. Jackson's testimony as to what Johnson said was consistent with his testimony at Johnson's trial. Jackson stated that he went to the police station the following day because the police had told him that he was "hiding something."

         Scott did not testify or call any witnesses. A .22 caliber rifle was found at Scott's girlfriend's home, but the parties stipulated that the rifle was inoperable. A jury convicted Scott of the same offenses for which Johnson had been convicted, and Judge Edwards imposed the same sentences.

         C. DIRECT APPEALS AND MOTIONS FOR RELIEF FROM JUDGMENT

         Both defendants appealed by right. The Court of Appeals affirmed Johnson's convictions. People v Johnson, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued March 26, 2002 (Docket No. 228547). The same Court of Appeals panel vacated on double-jeopardy grounds Scott's conviction of assault with intent to rob while armed but otherwise affirmed his convictions and sentences. People v Scott, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued March 26, 2002 (Docket No. 228548). This Court denied both defendants' applications for leave to appeal. People v Johnson, 467 Mich. 911 (2002); People v Scott, 467 Mich. 911 (2002).

         Johnson thereafter filed three motions for relief from judgment. In his second motion for relief from judgment, Johnson presented, as a claim of newly discovered evidence, Burnette's recantation and an affidavit from Jackson's relative that Jackson lied at the trials. The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals and this Court denied leave to appeal. People v Johnson, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered February 11, 2009 (Docket No. 287529); People v Johnson, 485 Mich. 893 (2009). Johnson's third motion for relief from judgment presented additional newly discovered evidence, which included police reports regarding domestic violence disputes between William and Lisa. Again, the trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals and this Court denied leave to appeal. People v Johnson, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered December 2, 2010 (Docket No. 298189); People v Johnson, 489 Mich. 990 (2011).

         Johnson filed his current and fourth motion for relief from judgment in December 2011. In particular, Johnson claimed that there was newly discovered evidence that one of the victim's children, Skinner, could attest that neither defendant was the shooter. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing, and the Court of Appeals denied relief. People v Johnson, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered May 30, 2013 (Docket No. 311625).

         Scott filed his first and only motion for relief from judgment in March 2013. Scott raised the same newly discovered evidence claim concerning Skinner, along with the claims of newly discovered evidence that Johnson had made in his previous motions for relief from judgment. The trial court[6] denied the motion without a hearing, and the Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal. People v Scott, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered November 5, 2013 (Docket No. 317915).

         Both defendants filed applications for leave to appeal in this Court. This Court remanded the cases to the Court of Appeals for consideration as on leave granted, directing the Court of Appeals to first remand these cases to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing pursuant to People v Ginther, 390 Mich. 436; 212 N.W.2d 922 (1973), to determine whether defendants were deprived of their right to the effective assistance of counsel and whether defendants were entitled to new trials based on newly discovered evidence. People v Johnson, 497 Mich. 897 (2014); People v Scott, 497 Mich. 897 (2014).

         D. EVIDENTIARY HEARING

         After consolidating the cases, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing. At the evidentiary hearing, Skinner testified that he was eight years old at the time his mother was killed. Skinner testified that on the evening in question, he and his family went to a drive-in movie theater, specifically recalling that they saw the movie "Life." When they stopped at Miller's house after the movie, Skinner testified that William went in by himself, while everyone else waited in the car. Skinner was originally sitting in the back seat of the van, but he had moved up to the front passenger seat as they waited for William to return. Skinner remembered that Lisa appeared agitated and that she left the van at one point to briefly speak with William. When she returned to the van and opened the door to get back in, Skinner saw a man behind her. Skinner recalled that the man was African-American and in his mid-thirties, with very short hair, a beard, and a big nose.[7] Skinner testified that the man's face was visible, even though it was dark out, because the dome light of the van had turned on when Lisa opened the door. Skinner stated that the man was standing behind Lisa and off to the side, and he was able to see the man for "[a]bout 25 seconds." When the man was about 6 inches behind her, with the door between him and Lisa, Skinner heard a gunshot, and the driver's-side window shattered. Lisa got into the car and raced to the nearest gas station, where she later collapsed.

         After his mother's death, Skinner never talked to William or the rest of his family about what he saw that night. He was not interviewed by any police officers, but he testified that if an officer had asked him about what he witnessed that night, he would have told the truth and would have been able to identify the shooter. Some time after the shooting, Skinner moved to Pennsylvania to live with his biological father's family. His family attempted to speak to him about his mother's death, but Skinner refused. He recalled seeing a counselor to talk about his mother, but he did not tell the counselor about what he saw that night.

         In 2007, the Wisconsin Innocence Project contacted Skinner by telephone, and Skinner indicated that he saw what had happened to his mother. Skinner did not give the Wisconsin Innocence Project a description of the shooter, and the Wisconsin Innocence Project never followed up with Skinner. In 2011, Skinner was contacted by an investigative reporter, who wrote a letter inquiring about his mother's death. Skinner testified that when he received the letter, he was surprised to learn that they were still trying to find out who had killed his mother. Based on this letter and the news articles he read, Skinner got the impression that defendants were wrongly convicted, so he spoke to the reporter, revealing for the first time his account of the shooting and giving the reporter a description of the shooter, noting that he "will never forget the person's face." The Michigan Innocence Clinic subsequently showed Skinner a photo lineup that included pictures of both defendants from the time of the incident, and he was confident that the person who shot his mother was not in the lineup.

         At the evidentiary hearing, Skinner acknowledged that he had been previously convicted of perjury for falsely testifying in a case in which his friend was charged in connection with a double homicide. But Skinner testified that he would not lie to protect someone he did not know and that he would tell the truth in order to find his mother's killer.

         Dr. Katherine Rosenblum, who was qualified as an expert in clinical and developmental psychology, also testified at the evidentiary hearing. Rosenblum testified that an eight-year-old child who witnessed a traumatic event would certainly be mature enough to have clear memories of the event. Rosenblum noted that research suggests a "narrowing of attention" in moments of high traumatic stress that leads people to "focus on and remember very clearly particular details . . . to the exclusion of some other, more peripheral details."

Burnette also testified at the evidentiary hearing, recanting much of what he had testified to at defendants' trials. Burnette asserted that neither defendant confessed to robbing or shooting a woman. Burnette also testified that he did not see either defendant with a gun on the day in question and that he was with Johnson at a relative's home at the time of the shooting. Burnette took back his previous testimony that the police had not threatened him, indicating that he had been afraid that he would be charged with the murder if he did not implicate someone. Burnette also stated that he was not coerced by either defendant or their families into giving his recantation testimony. On cross-examination, the prosecutor cited Burnette's preliminary examination testimony, in which he had testified that he was afraid of defendants, but Burnette denied this, saying he was coached by the police to say he was scared.

         Though Jackson had died in 2008, his cousin, Lameda Thomas, testified at the evidentiary hearing that Jackson had told her that he had lied on the stand out of fear of prosecution on two separate occasions. Specifically, Thomas testified that Jackson had stated he lied about Johnson telling him he hit a lick and had to shoot.

         E. TRIAL COURT'S RULING

         The trial court denied both defendants' motions for relief from judgment, concluding that there was no reasonable probability of a different result if Skinner testified on retrial.

         Specifically, the trial court found Skinner's testimony to be incredible for several reasons. First, the trial court concluded that Skinner could not have witnessed the shooting because Skinner would have been asleep based on the fact that he was on the way back from seeing the movie, "Life," which was not "Fantasia here or a Mickey Mouse cartoon. . . . So we're talking about [a movie about] life imprisonment or whatever . . . [s]omething that a child would have nothing to relate to." Accordingly, the trial court concluded that the children, including Skinner, "undoubtedly . . . were asleep in the back of the van . . . ."

         Second, even if Skinner had not been asleep, the trial court found that Skinner "wouldn't have been capable of seeing anybody outside," much less be able to pick out details regarding facial hair. The trial court reasoned that Lisa would have blocked Skinner's vision, as she stood between him and the shooter, and that the dome light would not have shed any light outside the car.

         Third, the trial court questioned Skinner's overall credibility based on his perjury conviction, stating: "Should we believe him, seeing as how he was in prison for perjury? I mean good grief. Doesn't that go right to the essence of it?"

         Lastly, the trial court noted that a significant amount of time had passed since the shooting had occurred. The trial court found it relevant that Skinner could not remember the name of his teacher or the school that he attended at the time. The trial court also found it hard to believe that Skinner would be able to remember what the shooter looked like:

I bet [Skinner] couldn't remember what his mother looked like today. . . . I have difficulty remembering what my father looked like, and it wasn't that long ago or my wife for that matter, which wasn't that long ago. But yet, he remembers what this shooter looked like at the time? I find it almost impossible to believe.

         With regard to Burnette and Jackson, the trial court stated that "[e]very one of the testimonies that were given during the course of the preliminary examination and the trial[s], and we're talking about four different occasions here, was the same by Mr. Burnett [sic] and by Mr. Jackson."[8] The trial court also noted that both witnesses knew the type of weapon that was used for the killing and both witnesses identified the victim by name. As to Burnette's testimony that he was coached by the police, the trial court found this illogical, reasoning that the police would not be able to predict what would be asked of Burnette. The trial court finally concluded that it could not find "any reasonable probability that there would be a different result in this case, even if Mr. Skinner was allowed to give testimony in regard to this matter, nothing."[9]

         F. COURT OF APPEALS' RULING

         The Court of Appeals majority affirmed the trial court's ruling in an unpublished per curiam opinion. People v Johnson, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued May 31, 2016 (Docket No. 311625). Although the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court's factual finding that Skinner had to have been asleep at the time of the shooting, the Court of Appeals nevertheless found that the trial court did not clearly err by finding Skinner's testimony unreliable. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that the recantations were not part of this Court's remand order and that the trial court had thus erred by considering these other claims. Even if the recantations could be considered, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court correctly determined that the recantations "seriously lacked any substantive weight." Id. at 10 n 8.[10]

         Defendants each filed an application for leave to appeal in this Court. We granted leave in both, ordering that the cases be argued together. People v Johnson, 501 Mich. 914 (2017); People v Scott, 501 Mich. 914 (2017).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews a trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion for a new trial for an abuse of discretion. People v Cress, 468 Mich. 678, 692; 664 N.W.2d 174');">664 N.W.2d 174 (2003). "An abuse of discretion occurs when a trial court's decision falls outside the range of reasonable and principled outcomes." People v Franklin, 500 Mich. 92, 100; 894 N.W.2d 561 (2017) (quotation marks and citation omitted). A mere difference in judicial opinion does not establish an abuse of discretion. Alken-Ziegler, Inc v Waterbury Headers Corp, 461 Mich. 219, 228; 600 N.W.2d 638 (1999).

         A trial court's factual findings are reviewed for clear error. MCR 2.613(C). Clear error occurs if "the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that the trial court made a mistake." People v Douglas, 496 Mich. 557, 592; 852 N.W.2d 587 (2014) (quotation marks and citations omitted). MCR 2.613(C) provides that "regard shall be given to the special opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses who appeared before it." (Emphasis added.) And "appellate courts need not refrain from scrutinizing a trial court's factual findings, nor may appellate courts tacitly endorse obvious errors under the guise of deference." People v McSwain, 259 Mich.App. 654, 683; 676 N.W.2d 236 (2003) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Motions for relief from judgment are governed by MCR 6.500 et seq. MCR 6.508(D)(3) provides that a court may not grant relief to a defendant if the motion alleges grounds for relief that could have been previously raised, unless the defendant demonstrates both good cause for failing to raise such grounds earlier as well as actual prejudice. The newly discovered evidence claim pertaining to Skinner's eyewitness account could not have been raised on appeal from defendants' convictions or in a prior motion for relief from judgment because defendants did not know that Skinner saw the shooting until 2011. Therefore, MCR 6.508(D)(3) does not bar the newly discovered evidence claims regarding Skinner's account.

         Although Scott's motion was his first motion for relief from judgment, Johnson's motion was a successive motion for relief from judgment, which is also governed by MCR 6.502(G). Generally speaking, "one and only one motion for relief from judgment may be filed with regard to a conviction. . . . A defendant may not appeal the denial or rejection of a successive motion." MCR 6.502(G)(1). However, a defendant may file a successive motion based on "a claim of new evidence that was not discovered before the first such motion." MCR 6.502(G)(2). The prosecutor does not argue that defendants' claim of newly discovered evidence in the form of Skinner's testimony is procedurally barred, either under MCR 6.502(G) or MCR 6.508(D)(3)(a).

         In their current motions for relief from judgment, defendants raise the claim of newly discovered evidence in the form of Skinner's testimony.[11] In order for a new trial to be granted on the basis of newly discovered evidence, a defendant must show that: "(1) the evidence itself, not merely its materiality, was newly discovered; (2) the newly discovered evidence was not cumulative; (3) the party could not, using reasonable diligence, have discovered and produced the evidence at trial; and (4) the new evidence makes a different result probable on retrial." Cress, 468 Mich. at 692 (quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court of Appeals analyzed the first three Cress factors and concluded that defendants satisfied their burden under each factor. On appeal, the prosecutor does not contest the Court of Appeals' conclusions as to the first three factors of Cress. Thus, the central issue before this Court is the fourth prong of Cress, whether "the new evidence makes a different result probable on retrial." Id.

         A. CREDIBILITY

         In order to determine whether newly discovered evidence makes a different result probable on retrial, a trial court must first determine whether the evidence is credible. Id. at 692-693. In making this assessment, the trial court should consider all relevant factors tending to either bolster or diminish the veracity of the witness's testimony. See id. at 692-694. A trial court's function is limited when reviewing newly discovered evidence, as it is not the ultimate fact-finder; should a trial court grant a motion for relief from judgment, the case would be remanded for retrial, not dismissal. In other words, a trial court's credibility determination is concerned with whether a reasonable juror could find the testimony credible on retrial. See Connelly v United States, 271 F.2d 333, 335 (CA 8, 1959) ("The trial court has the right to determine the credibility of newly discovered evidence for which a new trial is asked, and if the court is satisfied that, on a new trial, such testimony would not be worthy of belief by the jury, the motion should be denied.") (quotation marks and citation omitted; emphasis added).

         Recently, in People v Anderson, 501 Mich. 175; 912 N.W.2d 503 (2018), we compared the respective roles of a trial judge presiding over a motion for a new trial and a magistrate presiding over a preliminary examination when rendering credibility determinations. We held that, in the context of a preliminary examination, "[i]f a witness's lack of credibility, when considered together with the other evidence presented during the examination, is so lacking that 'a person of ordinary prudence and caution [would not] conscientiously entertain a reasonable belief of the accused's guilt,' a magistrate may not bind over the defendant for trial." Id. at 188-189 (citation omitted). See also People v Lemmon, 456 Mich. 625, 637; 576 N.W.2d 129 (1998) ("As the trier of fact, the jury is the final judge of credibility.") (quotation marks and citation omitted); Yaner v People, 34 Mich. 286, 289 (1876) ("We do not desire to be understood that the magistrate must nicely weigh evidence as a petit jury would, or that he must discharge the accused where there is a conflict of evidence, or where there is a reasonable doubt as to his guilt; all such questions should be left for the jury upon the trial.") (emphasis added). Although Anderson does not control in this context, as we are not now dealing with a preliminary examination, a trial court similarly plays a preliminary gatekeeping role in assessing a defendant's motion for relief from judgment; in both situations, the trial court is contemplating a future trial and the role of a future fact-finder.[12] If a witness's lack of credibility is such that no reasonable juror would consciously entertain a reasonable belief in the witness's veracity, then the trial court should deny a defendant's motion for relief from judgment. However, if a witness is not patently incredible, a trial court's credibility determination must bear in mind what a reasonable juror might make of the testimony, and not what the trial court itself might decide, were it the ultimate fact-finder.

         In this case, the trial court found that Skinner was not a credible witness. Importantly, the trial court noted that Skinner could not have witnessed the shooting, because the trial court found that Skinner must have been asleep. If Skinner was asleep for the shooting, then there could be no value to Skinner's testimony. As this was a factual determination, we review it for clear error, which exists if "the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that the trial court made a mistake." See Douglas, 496 Mich. at 592 (quotation marks and citation omitted). We, like the Court of Appeals, conclude that the trial court clearly erred by finding that Skinner was asleep during the shooting. Nothing in the record suggested that Skinner had been asleep beyond the trial court's mere speculation that the movie "Life" would certainly put a child to sleep. Even if the trial court were right to assume that Skinner was asleep during the movie, there is nothing to suggest that Skinner could not have woken up afterwards. In fact, Skinner specifically testified that, once William went into the house, he climbed into the front passenger's seat with his mother, indicating that he was awake and did witness the events. Because the trial court's factual finding was not rooted in anything in the record, the trial court clearly erred by finding that Skinner was asleep during the shooting.[13]

         The trial court also found that Skinner's testimony was not credible even if he had been awake. The trial court particularly questioned Skinner's ability to remember the shooter's face, noting that Skinner could not possibly remember what his own mother looked like, given that the trial judge had difficulty remembering his own father's face or his wife's face, despite them passing more recently than Lisa. To the extent the trial judge supported his credibility determination on the strength of his own memory, the trial court clearly erred. Because the focus is on whether a reasonable juror could credit Skinner's testimony, the trial judge's focus on his own personal gaps in memory was inappropriate. Whether or not a judge has a particularly good or bad memory has no legal relevance to whether a reasonable juror would find that a witness has the ability to recall something, especially when an expert witness has testified in support of that ability. In fact, the trial court failed to acknowledge Rosenblum's expert testimony, which indicated that it would not be impossible for a child of Skinner's age to recall specific details from a traumatic event several years later.

         The trial court additionally found that Skinner was not credible because Skinner could not have seen the shooter due to the position of Lisa's body. The trial court also considered the effect of Skinner's prior perjury conviction on his credibility. See MRE 609. Although it is appropriate for a trial court to take into account such weaknesses in a witness's testimony, the trial court failed to determine whether a reasonable juror might conclude that Skinner is nonetheless credible with regard to the facts at issue here. The trial court failed to consider whether a reasonable juror could have believed that, depending on the angle of approach, the darkness of the street, and the lighting conditions in the car, Skinner might have been able to make out defining characteristics of the shooter's face. A reasonable juror ...


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