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149380 - People v Stevens (Adam)

The People of the State of Michigan,
Jerrold Schrotenboer
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Jackson – McBain, J.)
Adam Benjamin Stevens,
Daniel D. Bremer


On March 22, 2012, Adam Stevens was convicted of second-degree child abuse and second-degree murder. Stevens raised multiple issues on appeal, including a claim that he was denied a fair trial and unfairly prejudiced by the trial court’s questioning of defendant and his expert witness. Stevens argued that there was a pattern to the question posed by the judge that told the jury that the judge thought Stevens was lying and that his expert witness was not qualified.  Stevens argues that, because his and his expert’s credibility were critical to the defense, the judge’s questions deprived him of a fair trial.     
The Court of Appeals affirmed in a split, unpublished opinion. The majority explained that a trial judge may interrogate witnesses, MRE 614(b), but must be careful to frame his questions so as not to pierce the veil of judicial impartiality. In this case, held the majority, the trial judge’s questions did not unduly influence the jury. The majority also noted that the judge instructed the jury that his questions were not evidence, and were not intended to reflect his opinion of the evidence. The dissenting judge would have reversed. She concluded that the judge’s questions of Stevens and his expert unquestionably evidenced partiality that most likely influenced the jury to Stevens’ detriment, denying him a fair trial. She also disagreed with the majority that the judge’s jury instructions would have cured any error, given the extent to which the judge’s conduct tainted the trial.
Stevens appealed. On November 21, 2014, the Supreme Court ordered oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other action. The Court directed the parties to address the appropriate standard for determining whether a trial court’s questioning of witnesses requires a new trial, and whether that standard was met in this case.