In 1995, William Craig Garrett was convicted of armed robbery and was sentenced, as a fourth habitual offender, to 15 to 30 years in prison. The victim of the robbery, 86-year-old Eleanore Neault, identified her assailant as the furnace man who visited her home several days earlier. There is no dispute that Garrett did visit Neault’s home to clean her furnace four days before the robbery. The police arrested him on the strength of Neault’s identification, although they did not find any of the proceeds of the robbery in his possession. Garrett did not testify at trial, but he presented alibi witnesses who testified as to his whereabouts during the afternoon of the robbery. Two witnesses placed Garrett at the home of Joseph Benke at the time of the robbery.
After he was convicted, Garrett learned that Neault was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia shortly after trial. Garrett also passed a polygraph examination, as did Joseph Benke, who was not called to testify at trial, but who confirmed the testimony of the alibi witnesses who said that Garrett was at Benke’s home at the time of the robbery.
Garrett’s appellate attorney filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted in 1999. The trial court did not grant the motion because of the evidence of Neault’s medical problems. But the trial court was persuaded that, if the jury had heard Benke’s testimony, which provided a complete alibi for Garrett, a different result was probable on retrial. The prosecutor appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, concluding that Benke’s anticipated testimony was cumulative of the other alibi witnesses who did testify at Garrett’s trial, and that Benke’s testimony was not newly discovered.
Garrett returned to the trial court, where he presented additional arguments in support of his motion for a new trial, but he did not obtain relief. He appealed again to the Court of Appeals, which granted leave to appeal and then affirmed the trial court in an unpublished opinion. The Court of Appeals rejected Garrett’s claim that the verdict was against the great weight of the evidence. The Court of Appeals also agreed with the trial court that the evidence of Neault’s medical diagnoses would not have caused a different verdict on retrial, noting that “momentary failures in [Neault’s] memory and mental faculties were evident during her testimony and would have been apparent to the jury.” Garrett sought review of this ruling from the Supreme Court, but leave to appeal was denied (although three Justices would have granted leave to appeal).
Garrett then filed a motion in the trial court seeking relief from judgment. Under MCR 6.508(D), a defendant has the burden of establishing relief from judgment. The court “may not grant” relief if the motion alleges grounds for relief that were decided against the defendant in a prior appeal “unless the defendant establishes that a retroactive change in the law has undermined the prior decision.” MCR 6.508(D)(2). Likewise, a court “may not grant” relief if the motion alleges grounds for relief that could have been raised on appeal from the conviction and sentence unless the defendant demonstrates “good cause” for failure to raise the grounds previously, and “actual prejudice” from the alleged irregularities that support the claim for relief. MCR 6.508(D)(3)(a) and (b). “The court may waive the ‘good cause’ requirement of the subrule (D)(3)(a) if it concludes that there is a significant possibility that the defendant is innocent of the crime.” MCR 6.508(D)(3).
In his motion for relief from judgment, Garrett argued that he was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel due to counsel’s failure to call Benke as an alibi witness, and due to counsel’s failure to move to suppress Neault’s in-court identification of him. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that there was a sufficient independent basis to support Neault’s identification of Garrett as the robber, and that the court was bound by the Court of Appeals’ earlier ruling that Benke’s testimony was cumulative of the testimony offered by Garrett’s other alibi witnesses.
Garrett sought appellate review of the trial court’s ruling, but the Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal, concluding that Garrett had failed to establish grounds for relief from judgment.
Garrett then appealed to the Supreme Court. In an order dated March 29, 2013, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal, and directed the parties to include among the issues to be briefed: “(1) by what standard(s) Michigan courts consider a defendant’s assertion that the evidence demonstrates a significant possibility that he is actually innocent of the crime in the context of a motion brought pursuant to MCR 6.508, and whether the defendant in this case qualifies under that standard; (2) whether the Michigan Court Rules, MCR 6.500, et seq. or another provision, provide a basis for relief where a defendant demonstrates a significant possibility of actual innocence; and (3) whether, if MCR 6.508(D) does bar relief, there is an independent basis on which a defendant who demonstrates a significant possibility of actual innocence may nonetheless seek relief under the United States or Michigan Constitutions.” In a concurring statement, Justice McCormack, joined by Justice Markman, asked that the parties also address: “(1) whether MCR 6.508(D)(2) bars relief premised on issues previously decided against defendant on direct appeal; (2) whether MCR 6.508(D)(2) bars a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel when that claim is premised on an issue previously decided against defendant on direct appeal; (3) the scope of relief, if any, available to a defendant under MCR 7.316(A)(7) in light of MCR 6.508(D); and (4) whether, when the only grounds for relief properly presented under MCR 6.508(D) are insufficient to entitle defendant to relief under that provision, a court may nonetheless consider, in conjunction with those grounds, claims and evidence considered at an earlier stage of review.”