Did 9/11 Mistrial Violate Defendant's Rights?

Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an interesting divided opinion in Walls v. Konteh, a habeas case arising from a particularly interesting — and somewhat unique — set of facts connected to the events of September 11, 2001.

In September 2001, Lawrence Walls was on trial in an Ohio court for for various crimes. On September 11, as the horrific events in New York City and elsewhere began to unfold, the judge declared a mistrial, and rescheduled the case. Walls sought to dismiss the case on grounds that a new trial would constitute double jeopardy, but the judge rejected this motion and conducted a bench trial in November 2001. The court found Walls guilty on several counts and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. The decision was upheld on appeal.

The trial judge in this case testified that prior to declaring a mistrial, he was concerned about the effect the breaking national news would have on the jury. The judge noted the seriousness of the charges and testified he was worried the jurors would not be able to devote their full attention to the evidence given the fact that the country appeared to be under attack. He further testified that he considered the option of instructing the jurors to return the next day. He testified he rejected the option because, once again, he was worried about the jurors' ability to concentrate and because he did not know if the courthouse would be open the next day. Based on the particular facts in this case as well as the foregoing testimony, we conclude that the trial judge properly exercised his discretion in finding a manifest necessity for declaration of a mistrial. Appellant's sole assignment of error is found not well-taken.
Walls filed a petition for a writ habeas corpus in federal district court. Here the judge concluded that the state court judge's sua sponte decision to declare a mistrial violated the defendant's constitutional right against double jeopardy. A majority of the reviewing panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed, however. Judge Norris, joined by Judge McKeague found that the "Ohio Court of Appeals' affirmance of [the judge's] declaration of a mistrial under these circumstances, grounded as it was on a concern about jury bias, is neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law as defined by any holding of the United States Supreme Court," and therefore no writ of habeas corpus was warranted. Judge Gilman dissented.
The majority opinion cites the proper authorities and engages in the correct analysis, but I believe that it gives short shrift to one key fact that, if adequately factored in, would undermine much of its persuasiveness and lead to the opposite result. Specifically, the state trial judge possessed no knowledge concerning the potential effect of the September 11 attacks on the ability of the jurors to fulfill their civic duties in Walls's case. Nor, of course, could he have possessed such knowledge; attacks like these had never before occurred on American soil. But the judge's lack of familiarity with events that were totally extraneous to Walls's trial distinguishes the present case from each of the cases cited . . . as examples of the deference usually accorded to a trial court's evaluation of "possible juror bias."