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Clark v. Lindsey

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 23, 2019

Kyle K. Clark, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
Kevin Lindsey, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued: June 28, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:16-cv-13485-Stephen J. Murphy, III, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Kevin S. Gentry, GENTRY NALLEY, PLLC, Howell, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Rebecca A. Berels, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Kevin S. Gentry, GENTRY NALLEY, PLLC, Howell, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Rebecca A. Berels, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: NORRIS, CLAY, and SUTTON, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          SUTTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         A Michigan jury convicted Kyle Clark of criminal sexual assault and domestic violence. In his direct appeal, Clark argued that his convictions should be set aside based on a Sixth (and Fourteenth) Amendment violation that allegedly arose when a scheduling error prohibited his lawyers from being physically present at his competency hearing. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the claim on the ground that the attorneys nonetheless were able to communicate with Clark and the court about the competency report-and all agreed that he no longer would challenge his competence. Clark filed a § 2254 habeas petition raising the same claim. The district court denied the petition. Because no U.S. Supreme Court case requires a different result, we affirm.

         The State of Michigan charged Kyle Clark with criminal sexual assault and domestic violence in 2011. Before trial, Clark agreed to undertake a psychological examination to determine his competence to stand trial. The report concluded that Clark was competent. Clark went over the report with his two attorneys, and the three agreed that Clark would no longer challenge his competence to be tried. His legal team communicated the point to the trial judge, and the court set a date for Clark formally to agree to be tried. A scheduling mix-up interfered. On the date of the hearing, each of Clark's two attorneys mistakenly thought the other would attend the hearing. The end result was a hearing with just Clark, the prosecutor, and the trial judge present. The judge communicated his understanding, based on a prior message from Clark's counsel, that Clark would no longer challenge his competence to be tried. Consistent with all of these communications, Clark agreed to be tried, and the hearing ended. In the criminal trial, which occurred about four weeks later, a jury found Clark guilty on both counts and sentenced him to 10 to 15 years' imprisonment.

         On direct appeal, Clark argued that the State deprived him of his right to counsel at the competency hearing. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed, noting Clark's communication with his attorneys and his attorneys' communication with the trial court. People v. Clark, No. 313121, 2014 WL 2795855, at *4 (Mich. Ct. App. June 19, 2014) (per curiam).

         In this § 2254 habeas action, Clark does not challenge his competence to be tried. He instead claims that the physical absence of his attorneys from the competency hearing automatically requires the verdict to be undone and automatically requires his release from jail on the ground that the absence of counsel amounted to a structural error in the proceeding. The district court denied the petition, holding that no Supreme Court case calls for automatic prejudice in this situation. We agree.

         AEDPA establishes the framework for resolving this case. In reviewing Clark's petition, we may not grant relief unless the state's decision on that claim contradicted or unreasonably applied U.S. Supreme Court precedents. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). That means the state court must have applied Supreme Court holdings in an "objectively unreasonable" way, as "even clear error will not suffice" to overturn a state court decision in this setting. Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (per curiam) (quotation omitted).

         The state court reasonably denied Clark's claim of structural error. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a defendant can show a Sixth Amendment violation without the need to prove prejudice when there is a "complete denial of counsel" at, or counsel is "totally absent" from, a "critical stage of the proceedings." United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 658-59 & n.25 ...


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