507 U.S. 619 (1993), 91-7358, Brecht v. Abrahamson

Docket Nº:No. 91-7358
Citation:507 U.S. 619, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353, 61 U.S.L.W. 4335
Party Name:Brecht v. Abrahamson
Case Date:April 21, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 619

507 U.S. 619 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353, 61 U.S.L.W. 4335




No. 91-7358

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 1993

Argued Dec. 1, 1992




At his first-degree murder trial in Wisconsin state court, petitioner Brecht admitted shooting the victim, but claimed it was an accident. In order to impeach this testimony, the State, inter alia, made several references to the fact that, before he was given his Miranda warnings at an arraignment, Brecht failed to tell anyone with whom he came in contact that the shooting was accidental. The State also made several references to his post-Miranda-warning silence in this regard. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Brecht was sentenced to [113 S.Ct. 1712] life in prison, but the State Court of Appeals set the conviction aside on the grounds that the State's references to his post-Miranda silence violated due process under Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 and this error was sufficiently "prejudicial" to require reversal. The State Supreme Court reinstated the conviction, holding that the error was "`harmless beyond a reasonable doubt'" under the standard set forth in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24. The Federal District Court disagreed and set aside the conviction on habeas review. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that the proper standard of harmless error review was that set forth in Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 776, i.e., whether the Doyle violation "`had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.'" Applying this standard, the court concluded that Brecht was not entitled to relief.


1. The Kotteakos harmless error standard, rather than the Chapman standard, applies in determining whether habeas relief must be granted because of unconstitutional "trial error" such as the Doyle error at issue. Pp. 627-638.

(a) The State's references to Brecht's post-Miranda silence violated Doyle. The Doyle rule rests on the Miranda warnings' implicit assurance that a suspect's silence will not be used against him, and on the fundamental unfairness of using postwarning silence to impeach an explanation subsequently offered at trial. It is conceivable that, once Brecht was given his warnings, he decided to stand on his right to remain silent because he believed his silence would not be used against him at trial. The prosecution's references to his pre-Miranda silence

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were, however, entirely proper. Such silence is probative, and does not rest on any implied assurance by law enforcement authorities that it will carry no penalty. Pp. 627-629.

(b) Doyle error fits squarely into the category of constitutional violations characterized by this Court as "trial error." See Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 297, 307. Such error occurs during the presentation of the case to the jury, and is amenable to harmless error analysis because it may be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence to determine its effect on the trial. See id. at 307-308. This Court has consistently applied the Chapman standard in reviewing claims of constitutional error of the trial type on direct review of state and federal criminal proceedings. Pp. 629-630.

(c) It is for the Court to determine what harmless error standard applies on collateral review of Brecht's Doyle claim. Although the Court has applied the Chapman standard in a handful of federal habeas cases, stare decisis does not preclude adoption of the Kotteakos standard here, since the decisions in question never squarely addressed, but merely assumed, Chapman's applicability on collateral review. Nor has Congress provided express guidance on the question. The federal habeas statute is silent as to the applicable standard, and while the federal harmless error statute appears to echo the Kotteakos standard, it has been limited in its application to claims of nonconstitutional error in federal criminal cases. In line with the traditional rule, the Court finds no reason to draw inferences from Congress' failure to enact post-Chapman proposals that would have provided a less stringent harmless error standard on collateral review of constitutional error. Pp. 630-633.

(d) The Kotteakos standard is better tailored to the nature and purpose of collateral review than the Chapman standard, and is more likely to promote the considerations underlying this Court's recent habeas jurisprudence. In recognition of the historical distinction between direct review as the principal [113 S.Ct. 1713] way to challenge a conviction and collateral review as an extraordinary remedy whose role is secondary and limited, the Court has often applied different standards on habeas than on direct review. It scarcely seems logical to require federal habeas courts to engage in the same approach that Chapman requires of state courts on direct review, since the latter courts are fully qualified to identify constitutional error, and are often better situated to evaluate its prejudicial effect on the trial process. Absent affirmative evidence that state court judges are ignoring their oath, Brecht's argument is unpersuasive that such courts will respond to the application of Kotteakos on federal habeas by violating their Article VI duty to uphold the Constitution. In any event, the additional deterrent effect, if any, of applying Chapman on federal habeas is outweighed by the costs of that application,

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which undermines the States' interest in finality and infringes upon their sovereignty over criminal matters; is at odds with habeas' purpose of affording relief only to those grievously wronged; imposes significant "social costs," including the expenditure of additional time and resources by all of the parties, the erosion of memory and the dispersion of witnesses, and the frustration of society's interest in the prompt administration of justice; and results in retrials that take place much later than those following reversal on direct appeal. This imbalance of costs and benefits counsels in favor of application of the less onerous Kotteakos standard on collateral review, under which claimants are entitled to relief for trial error only if they can establish that "actual prejudice" resulted. See United States v. Lane, 474 U.S. 438, 449. Because the Kotteakos standard is grounded in the federal harmless error rule (28 U.S.C. § 2111), federal courts may turn to an existing body of case law and, thus, are unlikely to be confused in applying it. Pp. 633-638.

2. It is clear that the Doyle error at Brecht's trial did not "substantially influence" the jury's verdict within the meaning of Kotteakos, since the record, considered as a whole, demonstrates that the State's references to Brecht's post-Miranda silence were infrequent and were, in effect, merely cumulative of the extensive and permissible references to his pre-Miranda silence; that the evidence of his guilt was, if not overwhelming, certainly weighty; and that circumstantial evidence also pointed to his guilt. Thus, Brecht is not entitled to habeas relief. Pp. 638-639.

944 F.2d 1363 (CA7 1991), affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 639. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, and in which SOUTER, J., joined except for the footnote and Part III, post, p. 644. BLACKMUN, post, p. 650, O'CONNOR, post, p. 650, and SOUTER, JJ., post, p. 657, filed dissenting opinions.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24 (1967), we held that the standard for determining whether a conviction must be set aside because of federal constitutional error is whether the error "was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt." In this case, we must decide whether the Chapman harmless error standard applies in determining whether the

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prosecution's use for impeachment purposes of petitioner's post-Miranda[1] silence, in violation of due process under [113 S.Ct. 1714] Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976), entitles petitioner to habeas corpus relief. We hold that it does not. Instead, the standard for determining whether habeas relief must be granted is whether the Doyle error "had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict." Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 776 (1946). The Kotteakos harmless error standard is better tailored to the nature and purpose of collateral review than the Chapman standard, and application of a less onerous harmless error standard on habeas promotes the considerations underlying our habeas jurisprudence. Applying this standard, we conclude that petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief.

Petitioner Todd A. Brecht was serving time in a Georgia prison for felony theft when his sister and her husband, Molly and Roger Hartman, paid the restitution for petitioner's crime and assumed temporary custody of him. The Hartmans brought petitioner home with them to Alma, Wisconsin, where he was to reside with them before entering a halfway house. This caused some tension in the Hartman household because Roger Hartman, a local district attorney, disapproved of petitioner's heavy drinking habits and homosexual orientation, not to mention his previous criminal exploits. To make the best of the situation, though, the Hartmans told petitioner, on more than one occasion, that he was not to drink alcohol or engage in homosexual activities in their home. Just one week after his arrival, however, petitioner violated this house rule.

While the Hartmans were away,...

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