Renico v. Lett


Does a trial court judge’s decision to declare a mistrial after the jury foreman stated that the jurors were not going to be able to reach a unanimous verdict violate double jeopardy?

Oral argument: 
March 29, 2010


Reginald Lett was convicted of second-degree murder in a Michigan state court in his second trial for the same offense. In his first trial, the judge determined that the jury was deadlocked and declared it a mistrial. Lett then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. His petition was granted. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling on the basis that Lett’s Fifth Amendment right to be free from Double Jeopardy had been violated because the trial court had not used “sound discretion” in finding a “manifest necessity” to declare a mistrial and terminate the ongoing proceedings. This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to clearly articulate what state courts must do before declaring a mistrial to avoid running afoul of the Fifth Amendment.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in a habeas case, erred in holding that the Michigan Supreme Court failed to apply clearly established Supreme Court precedent under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in denying relief on double jeopardy grounds in the circumstance where the State trial court declared a mistrial after the foreperson said that the jury was not going to be able to reach a verdict.


Reginald Lett was convicted for the shooting death of Adesoji Latona at a liquor store in Detroit, Michigan on August 29, 1996. See Lett v. Renico, 507 F.Supp.2d 777, 779 (E.D. Mich. 2007). Latona was a taxicab driver who was confronted by Lett and two other men, as he entered the liquor store. See id. One of the three men got into an argument with Latona because Latona threw him out of the cab earlier, and pushing and shoving ensued. See id. Lett claims he tried to intervene, and then retrieved a gun from the car and fired it once into the air. See id. Latona’s girlfriend, who was present at the scene, testified that she ran to the back of the store after she saw Lett draw a gun, and then heard two gunshots. See id. A medical examiner concluded Latona died from two gunshot wounds. See id. Lett was charged with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. See id.

Lett’s first trial spanned ten days, with testimony being taken intermittently over the course of four days of trial. See Lett, 507 F.Supp.2d at 779. After both the prosecution and defense rested their case, the jury commenced a two-day deliberation period. Lett v. Renico, 316 Fed.Appx. 421, 422 (6th Cir. 2009). During this time, the jury sent seven notes to the judge. See id. On the second day of deliberation, the jury sent a note to the judge asking, “What if we can’t agree? [M]istrial? [R]etrial? [W]hat?” See id. The state trial judge called the jury back into the courtroom. See id. The record shows that the trial judge asked the jury foreperson, “I need to ask you if the jury is deadlocked; in other words, is there a disagreement as to the verdict?” See id. The foreperson responded, “Yes, there is.” See id. The judge inquired further, “Do you believe that it is hopelessly deadlocked?” See id. When the foreperson responded in a manner trending towards revealing the posture of the jury’s decision, the judge cut the foreperson off and warned them not to reveal what the verdict might be, or the details of the split amongst the jury. See id. The trial judge then asked, “Are you going to reach a unanimous verdict or not?” See id. The foreperson did not answer. See id. The judge then asked, “yes or no?” See id. At that point, the foreperson answered, “No.” See id. The judge then declared a mistrial and summarily dismissed the jury. See id. at 423. Lett was subsequently retried on the same charges, but this time, the second jury convicted him of second-degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. See id.

Lett appealed this conviction to the Michigan Court of Appeals claiming his retrial violated the double jeopardy prohibitions in both the Michigan and the United States Constitutions, because the state trial judge’s termination of the original trial was neither with his consent, nor justified on the basis of “manifest necessity.” See Lett, 316 Fed.Appx. at 423. The appeals court agreed and reversed Lett’s conviction, but the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding that the justifications for the trial judge’s decision to declare a mistrial were so “plain and obvious” on the record that there was no need for her to further articulate her reasoning. See id.

Lett subsequently sought a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of MichiganSee Lett, 316 Fed.Appx. at 423. The federal district court found that the decision to declare a mistrial was not in sound discretion of the judge or required by manifest necessity and, thereby, determined that the Michigan Supreme Court did not reasonably apply federal law. See id. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s finding that the Michigan Supreme Court was unreasonable to find the trial judge exercised sound discretion in declaring a mistrial and affirmed the grant of habeas relief to Lett. See id. at 428. The court of appeals noted that the trial judge’s actions “exhibited haste and a lack of consideration for Lett’s rights,” as she conflated the differences between deadlock and mere disagreement, and “exerted inappropriate pressure” on the foreperson to respond to her questions without offering them adequate opportunity to explain the situation. See id. at 427. The government appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a writ of certiorari was granted on November 30, 2009. See Question Presented.


The parties in this case disagree over whether the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was correct in affirming a district court’s decision to grant an inmate a writ of habeas corpus. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA,” codified at 28 U.S.C. 2254) requires federal courts to give state court decisions in habeas proceedings deference unless they unreasonably applied clearly established United States Supreme Court precedent. See Brief for Petitioner at 13. The Petitioner, Paul Renico (“Renico”), argues that the state court’s decision to declare a mistrial did not unreasonably apply clearly established Supreme Court precedent, and therefore, it is entitled to deference. See id. at 13. The Respondent, Reginald Lett, argues the opposite—that the state court’s decision unreasonably applied clearly established Supreme Court precedent and violated his right to be free from Double Jeopardy. See Brief for Respondent at 6.

Did the Trial Court Exercise “Sound Discretion?”

The parties agree that clearly established United States Supreme Court precedent requires a trial court to exercise “sound discretion” in finding “manifest necessity” before declaring a mistrial. See Brief for Petitioner at 16; Brief for Respondent at 8, 10. The parties also agree that a genuinely deadlocked jury constitutes “manifest necessity,” meaning that if the trial court exercised sound discretion in determining that the jury was deadlocked, then a new trial would not violate the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against Double JeopardySee Brief for Petitioner at 16; Brief for Respondent at 9. They differ on whether the trial court’s finding of “manifest necessity” was within the discretion afforded to it by Supreme Court precedent.

Renico argues that the discretion afforded to trial courts in ordering a mistrial is broad. See Brief for Petitioner at 17–18. To support this argument, Renico looks to the language found in Supreme Court cases like United States v. Perez, where the Court said that trial courts have “the authority to discharge a jury from giving any verdict, whenever, in their opinion, taking all the circumstances into consideration, there is manifest necessity.” See id. at 20 (citing United States v. Perez, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 579, 580 (1824)). Renico argues that because this articulation of the rule is framed in general terms like “manifest necessity” rather than specific terms indicating exactly when courts should order a new trial, courts should have broad discretion in applying the standard. See id. at 18. Renico also argues that broad discretion is necessary in order to properly balance the competing rights at stake in the Double Jeopardy Clause, such as the rights of the public to justice and the rights of the accused to not be continuously tried by the state until convicted. See id. at 22.

On the other hand, Lett argues that the discretion afforded to trial courts in ordering a new trial is narrow. See Brief for Respondent at 10. Lett also quotes the Supreme Court in Perez, noting that, “the power [to declare a mistrial] ought to be used with the greatest caution, under urgent circumstances, and for very plain and obvious causes.” See id. (citing Perez22 U.S. at 580). Furthermore, Lett looks to other Supreme Court decisions that define “manifest necessity” as being a “high degree” of necessity only found in “striking” or “extraordinary” circumstances. See id. at 10–11 (citing Arizona v. Washington434 U.S. 497, 506 (1978); Downum v. United States372 U.S. 734, 736 (1963)). Accordingly, Lett argues, a trial court should only make a finding of “manifest necessity” after a careful, deliberate consideration of the circumstances. See id. at 12. Lett also argues that the record must evidence this careful, deliberate consideration, and the record in this case does not because the trial judge’s limited inquiries did not demonstrate whether the jury was genuinely deadlocked. See id. at 13–14.

The parties disagree as to the appropriate standard of review that should be applied by appellate courts to determine whether the trial court properly exercised “sound discretion.” Lett argues that sound discretion is applied only where the facts establish both that the jury was genuinely deadlocked, and the record demonstrates that the trial court acted carefully and deliberately. See Brief for Respondent at 20. Renico believes that where the facts do not show that the trial court acted irresponsibly or irrationally by ordering a mistrial based on something other than a belief that the jury was deadlocked, then the judge exercised “sound discretion.” See Brief for Petitioner at 28–29.

Lett argues that the evidence does not show that the jury was genuinely deadlocked because the court did not let counsel speak on whether there should be a mistrial, only heard from the foreperson, and only allowed the foreperson to answer “yes or no” to the question of whether the jury would agree. See Brief for Respondent at 16. Lett notes that only three minutes after reading aloud a note from a jury asking what would happen if they could not agree, the trial court dismissed them and ordered a new trial. See id. at 15. Lett argues that a trial court could not have responsibly concluded that the jury was deadlocked based on this evidence, as the foreperson’s one word answer is ambiguous, no other jurors were asked, and the jury’s note did not in any way state that they were, in fact, deadlocked. See id. at 16–18. Furthermore, in Supreme Court precedent where the “sound discretion” standard was met, the trial court allowed counsel a chance to argue the matter— in this case, the trial court did not allow argument, or even consider any other alternatives. See id. at 12–13, 17. Lett argues that if such a small amount of evidence in the record suffices to order a new trial, then state appellate courts’ only purpose is to add a “rubber stamp” of approval to trial courts’ findings of “manifest necessity.” See id. at 17.

Renico is less concerned with whether the evidence shows the jury to be genuinely deadlocked, but rather whether there is evidence that goes directly to the policy rationales behind Double Jeopardy. Renico notes that there is no evidence or insinuation that the judge acted for any reason other than a belief that the jury was deadlocked. See Brief for Petitioner at 29. According to Renico, this is not then a case where the prosecution is attempting to try to defendant a second time just to get a conviction. See id. In the absence of any evidence that the judge decided for some other reason than a belief that the jury was deadlocked, Renico argues that appellate courts should defer to the trial court’s factual determinations because the trial court is in the best situation to make those determinations. See id. at 33.

The Scope of Federal Review Under the AEDPA

While the parties agree that the requirements for “sound discretion” and “manifest necessity” are “clearly-established” precedent, they still quarrel over the meaning of “clearly-established” in other respects, which is important because federal courts must defer to a state court’s decision in a habeas proceeding unless the state court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law under the AEDPA. See Brief for Petitioner at 13.

Renico argues that there is no clearly established Supreme Court precedent that requires state courts to take any particular steps before declaring a mistrial, meaning that there is no basis for a federal court to overturn the trial court’s decision to declare a mistrial under the AEDPA. See Brief for Petitioner at 32. Renico argues by analogy to a recent Supreme Court case involving AEDPA, United States v. Cronic, which involved a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. See id. at 36; United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984). Renico argues that, in Cronic, the Court held that there was no clearly established precedent on what constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel and therefore a federal court had no basis upon which to overturn a fact-based state court determination on the issue. See id. Similarly, Renico argues, a federal court would have no basis to overturn a state court decision to order a new trial because no clearly established precedent finds particular facts dispositive or requires the state court to take any specific measures prior to reaching such a decision. See id.

Lett argues that Renico’s argument that a federal court must defer to a state court’s factual findings should be ignored because it was first raised on appeal and not in the district court. See Brief for Respondent at 36. Lett also responds that the Supreme Court has intentionally avoided specifying exactly what steps a state court must take before declaring a mistrial, but has clearly held that they must be cautious and take all of the circumstances into account. See Brief for the Respondent at 21. Further, Lett argues that trial court’s abrupt action, failure to allow counsel to argue, and failure to consider alternatives, constitutes an “unreasonable” application of this precedent. See id. at 24. To support this, Lett cites to various circuit court cases, arguing that they all reject bright line rules and look to the myriad factual circumstances present when judges declare mistrials to determine if there is enough evidence to support a finding of “manifest necessity.” See id. at 26. While the circuit courts may list the factors and considerations they look for differently, their decisions all essentially apply the same legal standard—a careful and cautious consideration of all the circumstances. See id. at 31.


The Petitioner, Paul Renico, Warden of the Mid-Michigan Correctional Facility, argues that the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit should have given deference to the trial judge’s decision to declare a mistrial in this case. See Brief for Petitioner, Paul Renico, at 13. The Respondent, Reginald Lett, argues that although state appellate courts do owe deference to a trial judge’s decision to declare a mistrial, state appellate courts must review whether the trial judge exercised sound discretion in the decision, and federal courts must determine whether state appellate courts reasonably applied federal law. See Brief for Respondent, Reginald Lett, at 6.

Evaluating the trial court judge’s determination of manifest necessity

Renico explains that the trial courts have traditionally enjoyed broad discretion in determining whether manifest necessity justifies declaring a mistrial because the decision is highly contingent on the factual circumstances of the situation in the courtroom. See Brief for Petitioner at 27. The trial judge uniquely has the opportunity to observe the jury’s demeanor and other factors in the courtroom that may not be reflected on the appellate record. When a jury appears unable to reach a verdict, the trial judge is faced with a difficult decision—if the judge discharges the jury too soon, when a fair result might still have been a possibility, the judge deprives the defendant of his right to receive a verdict from that particular tribunal. See id. However, if the judge fails to dismiss a jury after they have become deadlocked, he or she runs the risk that those jurors who had been “holding out,” might just relent in their positions in order to reach a verdict and be able to go home. See id.

The Respondent, Lett, concedes that when a trial judge exercises sound discretion and declares a mistrial premised on manifest necessity, a deadlocked jury does constitute manifest necessity for a trial judge to declare a mistrial. See Brief for Respondent at 9–10. However, Lett indicates that this “begs the question of whether Mr. Lett’s jury was ‘genuinely deadlocked.’” See id. at 9. Lett argues that the decision to declare a mistrial must be viewed as closer to the last option, rather than the first consideration of a judge. See id. at 13. Based on the exchange between the trial court judge and the jury foreperson in this case, Lett argues that the foreperson’s expression of a hung jury is ambiguous in context and the judge jumped immediately to declare a mistrial without considering whether additional deliberations would be productive. See id. at 18. Under Lett’s approach, the trial court should provide substantial evidence on the record to support its declaration of a mistrial. Rather than just ask the foreperson whether they were going to reach a verdict or not, Lett suggests the trial judge should consider other alternatives, such as asking the foreperson whether he or she thinks further deliberations would be productive, asking whether other jurors agreed with the foreperson’s answer, providing a deadlocked jury instruction, or consulting with counsel. See id.

Appellate scrutiny of the trial court judge’s decision to declare a mistrial

Renico also contests the fact that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals listed additional factors for the trial court to consider when determining whether there was manifest necessity to terminate a trial. See Brief for Petitioner at 37–38. Renico claims that since there is a split in the circuit courts on this issue, there is no clearly established federal precedent that mandates the trial court to use additional methods to determine the existence of a deadlocked jury. See id. at 43. Renico contends that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) requires that a state trial court’s decision be given due deference if the court reasonably applied clearly-established United States Supreme Court precedent, and that the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation of manifest necessity, rigidly spelling out how the trial court should formulate its decision, second-guessed the trial court decision. See id. at 13, 46.

In response, Lett argues that the Sixth Circuit did not impose additional requirements for the trial court to consider when reaching a manifest necessity decision. See Brief for Respondent at 20. Rather, under clearly established federal law, the Sixth Circuit’s decision spelled out how sound discretion requires the trial judge to consider all circumstances and reach a ruling that is thoughtful and deliberative. See id. at 22. Lett agrees that various circuits articulate their approaches to determining sound discretion differently, but these approaches all converge on the principle that something more should have been done than what is in the record in this case. See id. at 30. Lett argues that because the record is so thin on how the state trial court judge reached a decision here, there was no sound discretion and the Sixth Circuit was correct to list factors to explain how this decision could be made correctly. See id. at 23–24.

The Court’s decision in this case will thus greatly impact the degree of discretion trial court judges have determining when a case is sufficiently “deadlocked,” to merit declaring a mistrial. A decision in favor of Renico would bolster the level of discretion afforded trial court judges’ decision to declare a mistrial. If the Court decides in favor of Lett, judges will become less willing to declare a mistrial when the jury arrives at a deadlock and will proceed with further cautionary steps to demonstrate their decision making process on the record.


This case presents the Court with the opportunity to clearly articulate what steps a state court must take before declaring a mistrial. Additionally, the Court will have the opportunity to further define the scope of federal courts’ review of state habeas decisions under the AEDPA. The Court’s decision may have a significant impact on criminal procedure as well as on the degree of discretion given to trial judges in determining when a mistrial has occurred.

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Additional Resources 

·      Wex: Habeas Corpus

·      Wex: Double Jeopardy

·      Wex: Fifth Amendment

·      CRS Annotated Constitution: Reprosecution Following Mistrial