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146523-4 - People v Chenault (Schuyler)

The People of the State of Michigan,
Marilyn J. Day
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Oakland – O’Brien, D.)
Schuyler Dion Chenault
Elizabeth L. Jacobs


Schuyler Dion Chenault was charged and convicted of the June 29, 2008 shooting death of Keith Harris in Pontiac during a drug deal. Chenault’s theory at trial was that his companion Jared Chambers, not Chenault, shot Harris and fled with the drugs and money. Heather Holloway, Harris’ girlfriend, testified at trial that Chenault shot Harris in the head.
One issue in this case involves recorded witness statements of Holloway, Chambers, and one other witness that the prosecution did not share with Chenault. Chenault contends that, if he had had these recordings, he would have used them to support his theory of the case and that the outcome would likely have been different.
The last witness for the prosecution, Pontiac Police Detective Steven Wittebort, testified that when presented with a photo lineup, Holloway and Chambers had immediately identified Chenault as the shooter and that another witness had acknowledged being with Chenault at the scene. Wittebort, on cross-examination, stated that he had interviewed Holloway twice and that she had told a different story the first time because she was afraid. He said that she mentioned Chambers in the second interview, although she had not mentioned him in her written statement, and that all witness interviews are recorded on video. Chenault’s attorney asked about the video, saying he had “[n]ever seen it,” with Wittebort responding, “[You] [s]hould have.”
At the completion of Wittebort’s testimony, Chenault’s attorney moved for a directed verdict, arguing that there had been insufficient evidence of an armed robbery to provide the underlying felony for the felony-murder charge. (Felony-murder is a killing that takes place in connection with the commission of a serious felony.) The trial judge denied the motion.
The jury found Chenault guilty of first-degree premeditated murder and felony-murder, as well as felony-firearm. Chenault was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus the mandatory consecutive two-year term for the felony-firearm conviction.
Chenault moved for a new trial, arguing that the prosecutor had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence – recorded witness statements for Holloway and others – as required by Brady v Maryland, 373 US 83 (1963). The prosecution stipulated to the fact that the recordings, for whatever reason, had not been disclosed.
At the Brady hearing, Chenault’s aunt testified that, after the jury was excused to deliberate, she saw Wittebort offer Chenault’s attorney a DVD, with Wittebort telling the attorney that he could get the attorney a copy within a week. She said she was “furious” that the defense attorney did not take the DVD. Wittebort also testified; he said that he had turned over the recordings to the prosecutor’s office, but not to the prosecutor personally, sometime after the preliminary examination.
The prosecution filed affidavits from the three trial prosecutors stating that they did not know about, or have in their possession prior to trial, any recorded witness statements. Chenault’s defense counsel also filed an affidavit to the same effect. The parties stipulated to the admission of video recordings of Holloway and Chambers, who testified at the trial, and of two other witnesses, who were not called to testify at trial.
At the end of the Brady hearing, the circuit judge granted a new trial, finding that three of the recorded interviews constituted evidence that was favorable to Chenault, and that there was a reasonable probability that the evidence, if disclosed to and used by Chenault, might have led to his acquittal.
The prosecution appealed, and in an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed, saying that Brady had not been violated.
“Under Brady, the State violates a defendant’s right to due process if it withholds evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment,” the Court of Appeals explained.
Citing People v Lester, 232 Mich App 262 (1998), the Court of Appeals said a defendant must meet four criteria to establish a Brady violation: “(1) that the state possessed evidence favorable to the defendant; (2) that he did not possess the evidence nor could he have obtained it himself with any reasonable diligence; (3) that the prosecution suppressed the favorable evidence; and (4) that had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, a reasonable probability exists that the outcome of the proceedings would have been different.”
The appellate court continued, “The question is not whether the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence, but whether in its absence he received a fair trial, understood as a trial resulting in a verdict worthy of confidence.” Moreover, “the materiality of suppressed evidence is to be determined collectively rather than item by item.”
The appeals court concluded, based on part of the testimony of Chenault’s aunt, that Chenault could have obtained the recordings with reasonable diligence because defense counsel had been aware of the fact that the witness interviews were recorded but had made no effort to obtain the recordings.
The court also concluded that the recorded interviews were either not favorable to Chenault or that their suppression did not undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial, or both. For example, as to Holloway’s interviews, the Court of Appeals concluded that the recording did not support Chenault’s theory that Holloway had had difficulty pointing out the shooter’s photo or that her identification of Chenault was weak; overall, Holloway’s second recorded interview contradicted Chenault’s theory of the case, the panel said. Chenault argued that Holloway’s and Chambers’ interviews opened them up to impeachment on cross-examination, but the Court of Appeals disagreed: Although both witnesses were told by police that they would not be charged, neither had been offered anything in exchange for their testimony nor encouraged to implicate Chenault.
The Court of Appeals also concluded that when the recorded interviews were “considered collectively,” they were not material because “their suppression did not undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial.” In fact, the interviews all supported the prosecutor’s contention that Chenault shot Harris in the head while Harris was attempting to deliver cocaine; none of the interviews supported defendant’s theory that Chambers was the shooter, the appellate pa
Chenault appealed. Among other matters, he argued that the Court of Appeals’ Lester decision had added an element not found in Brady: The requirement that, for a defendant to succeed in a Brady challenge, the defendant could not have obtained the suppressed, favorable evidence himself with any “reasonable diligence.”
In a June 5, 2013 order, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal. The Court directed the parties to address “(1) whether the Court of Appeals’ decision in People v Lester, 232 Mich App 262, 281 (1998), correctly articulates what a defendant must show to establish a Brady violation; (2) whether the Court of Appeals erred when it reversed the trial court’s grant of a new trial, which was premised on the prosecution’s violation of the rule from Brady v Maryland, 373 US 83; 83 S Ct 1194; 10 L Ed 2d 215 (1963); and (3) whether trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v Washington, 466 US 668; 104 S Ct 2052; 80 L Ed 2d 674 (1984), for failing to exercise reasonable diligence after learning of the existence of the videotaped interviews.”