Justia Summary

Davenport, convicted of first-degree murder following a jury trial where he sat shackled at a table with a “privacy screen,” argued that his conviction should be set aside because the Due Process Clause generally forbids such shackling absent “a special need.” On remand, the trial court conducted a hearing; jurors testified that the shackles had not affected their verdict. The federal district court found habeas relief unwarranted under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. 2254(d). The Sixth Circuit reversed without analyzing the case under AEDPA.

The Supreme Court reversed. When a state court has ruled on the merits of a prisoner’s claim, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief without applying both the Supreme Court’s “Brecht” test and AEDPA. Brecht held that the harmless-error rule for direct appeals was inappropriate for federal habeas review of final state-court judgments. A state prisoner must show that a state court’s error had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence” on the trial’s outcome, AEDPA instructs that if a state court has adjudicated the petitioner’s claim on the merits, a federal court “shall not” grant habeas relief “unless” the state court’s decision was “contrary to” or an “unreasonable application of” clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, or based on an “unreasonable determination of the facts” presented in the state-court proceeding.

The Court rejected Davenport’s argument that the AEDPA inquiry represents a logical subset of the Brecht test, so the Sixth Circuit necessarily found that he satisfied AEDPA. AEDPA asks whether every fair-minded jurist would agree that an error was prejudicial, Brecht asks only whether a federal habeas court itself harbors grave doubt about the verdict. The legal materials a court may consult when answering each test also differ. Even assuming that Davenport’s claim can survive Brecht, he cannot satisfy AEDPA. Nothing in Supreme Court precedent is inconsistent with the Michigan Court of Appeals’ reliance on post-trial testimony from actual jurors.