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Closed courtroom spoils verdict in Flint murder trial

March 14, 2022 GMT

FLINT, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Supreme Court overturned a murder conviction Monday, saying a Flint-area judge who closed his courtroom to the public violated the rights of a man who was on trial.

The decision means a new trial for Donald Davis Jr., 27, who is serving a life sentence.

Genesee County Judge Geoffrey Neithercut cleared the courtroom after a spectator attending Davis’ trial asked a juror during a break if she worked at a hospital.

After the trial, Neithercut said his order was “poorly worded” and that he should have said “don’t come back today.” But the practical effect meant that no one watched the trial over several days except for the mother of the victim.

The Supreme Court said there was nothing ambiguous about Neithercut’s order.

“The existence of public observers, no matter their affiliation, helps to ensure a fair trial, to ensure that attorneys and judges do their jobs responsibly, to encourage witnesses to come forward, and to discourage perjury,” Justice Elizabeth Clement said in the court’s 6-0 opinion.

Justice Brian Zahra agreed with the result but wrote a separate opinion.

The trial occurred before Neithercut retired at the end of 2018.

Davis was accused of killing Devante Hanson, whose body was found in a car outside a Flint apartment building in 2016.