513 U.S. 432 (1995), 93-7407, O'Neal v. McAninch

Docket Nº:No. 93-7407
Citation:513 U.S. 432, 115 S.Ct. 992, 130 L.Ed.2d 947, 63 U.S.L.W. 4126
Party Name:O'NEAL v. McANINCH, WARDEN
Case Date:February 21, 1995
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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513 U.S. 432 (1995)

115 S.Ct. 992, 130 L.Ed.2d 947, 63 U.S.L.W. 4126

O'NEAL

v.

McANINCH, WARDEN

No. 93-7407

United States Supreme Court

February 21, 1995

Argued October 31, 1994

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In proceedings on Robert O'Neal's federal habeas corpus petition challenging his state-court convictions for murder and other crimes, the Sixth Circuit assumed that O'Neal had established constitutional "trial" error with regard to one of the jury instructions, but disregarded that error on the ground that it was "harmless." After setting forth the harmlessness standard normally used by federal habeas courts—whether the error had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict," see, e. g., Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 627— the Sixth Circuit stated that the habeas petitioner must bear the "burden of establishing" whether the error was prejudicial under that standard. As a practical matter, the court's burden-of-proof statement apparently means that the petitioner must lose if a reviewing judge is in grave doubt about the effect on the jury of this kind of error, i. e., if, in the judge's mind, the matter is so evenly balanced that he or she feels in virtual equipoise as to the error's harmlessness.

Held:

When a federal habeas court finds a constitutional trial error and is in grave doubt about whether the error had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict," the error is not harmless, and the petitioner must win. Pp. 436-445.

(a) The foregoing legal conclusion rests upon three considerations. First, it is supported by precedent. See, e. g., Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 764-765; Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24. Brecht, supra, at 637, and Palmer v. Hoffman, 318 U.S. 109, 116, distinguished. The State's view that appellants' "burden" of showing "prejudice" in civil cases applies to habeas proceedings fails to take into account the stakes involved in a habeas proceeding. Unlike the civil cases cited by the State, the errors being considered by a habeas court occurred in a criminal proceeding, and therefore, although habeas is a civil proceeding, someone's custody, rather than mere civil liability, is at stake. Moreover, precedent suggests that civil and criminal harmless error standards do not differ in their treatment of grave doubt as to the harmlessness of errors affecting substantial rights. Compare, e. g., Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 52(a) with Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 61. Second, the Court's conclusion is consistent with the basic purposes underlying the writ of habeas corpus. A legal rule requiring issuance of the writ will,

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at least often, avoid the grievous wrong of holding a person in custody in violation of the Constitution and will thereby both protect individuals from unconstitutional convictions and help to guarantee the integrity of the criminal process by assuring that trials are fundamentally fair. In contrast, although denying the writ in cases of grave uncertainty would help protect the State's interest in the finality of its judgments and would promote federal-state comity, such a rule would also virtually guarantee that many, in fact, would be wrongly imprisoned or executed, and would tell judges who believe individuals are quite possibly being held in unlawful custody that they cannot grant relief. Third, the rule adopted herein has certain administrative virtues: It is consistent with the way that courts have long treated important trial errors and avoids the need for judges to read lengthy records to determine prejudice in every habeas case. These factors are not determinative, but offer a practical caution against a rule that, in respect to precedent and purpose, would run against the judicial grain. Pp. 437-444.

(b) Contrary to the State's argument, there is nothing in the language of the habeas corpus statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), that tells a court to treat a violation as harmless when it is in grave doubt about harmlessness. Indeed, there is no significant support for either side in any of the language of the relevant statutes or Rules. In these circumstances, the Court properly undertakes the foregoing examination, looking first to the considerations underlying its habeas jurisprudence, and then determining whether the proposed rule will advance or inhibit these considerations by weighing the marginal costs and benefits of its application on collateral review. See Brecht, supra, at 633. Pp. 444-445.

3 F.3d 143, vacated and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia, J., joined, post, p. 445.

Thomas R. Wetterer, Jr., by appointment of the Court, 511 U.S. 1067, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Gloria Eyerly, Gregory L. Ayers, and John A. Bay.

Richard A. Cordray, State Solicitor of Ohio, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the briefs were Lee Fisher, Attorney General, Simon B. Karas, and Stuart A. Cole and Timothy J. Mangan, Assistant Attorneys General.

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James A. Feldman argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Harris, and Deputy Solicitor General Wallace.[*]

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.

Reviewing courts normally disregard trial errors that are harmless. This case asks us to decide whether a federal habeas

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court should consider a trial error harmless when the court (1) reviews a state-court judgment from a criminal trial, (2) finds a constitutional error, and (3) is in grave doubt about whether or not that error is harmless. We recognize that this last mentioned circumstance, "grave doubt," is unusual. Normally a record review will permit a judge to make up his or her mind about the matter. And indeed a judge has an obligation to do so. But we consider here the legal rule that governs the special circumstance in which record review leaves the conscientious judge in grave doubt about the likely effect of an error on the jury's verdict. (By "grave doubt" we mean that, in the judge's mind, the matter is so evenly balanced that he feels himself in virtual equipoise as to the harmlessness of the error.) We conclude that the uncertain judge should treat the error, not as if it were harmless, but as if it affected the verdict (i. e., as if it had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict").

I

Robert O'Neal filed a federal habeas corpus petition challenging his state-court convictions for murder and other crimes. The Federal District Court agreed with several of his claims of constitutional trial error. On appeal the Sixth Circuit disagreed with the District Court, with one important exception. That exception focused on possible jury "confusion" arising out of a trial court instruction about the state of mind necessary for conviction combined with a related statement by a prosecutor. The Sixth Circuit assumed, for argument's sake, that the instruction (taken together with the prosecutor's statement) had indeed violated the Federal Constitution by misleading the jury. Nonetheless, the court disregarded the error on the ground that it was "harmless." O'Neal v. Morris, 3 F.3d 143, 147 (1993).

The court's opinion sets forth the standard normally applied by a federal habeas court in deciding whether or not this kind of constitutional "trial" error is harmless, namely,

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whether the error " ' "had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict." ' " Id., at 145 (quoting Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 627 (1993) (quoting, and adopting, standard set forth in Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 776 (1946))). But, rather than ask directly whether the record's facts satisfied this standard, the court seemed to refer to a burden of proof. Its opinion says that the habeas petitioner must bear the "burden of establishing" whether the error was prejudicial. 3 F. 3d, at 145. As a practical matter, this statement apparently means that, if a judge is in grave doubt about the effect on the jury of this kind of error, the petitioner must lose. Thus, O'Neal might have lost in the Court of Appeals, not because the judges concluded that the error was harmless, but because the record of the trial left them in grave doubt about the effect of the error.

This Court granted certiorari to decide what the law requires in such circumstances. We repeat our conclusion: When a federal judge in a habeas proceeding is in grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict," that error is not harmless. And, the petitioner must win.

II

As an initial matter, we note that we deliberately phrase the issue in this case in terms of a judge's grave doubt, instead of in terms of "burden of proof." The case before us does not involve a judge who shifts a "burden" to help control the presentation of evidence at a trial, but rather involves a judge who applies a legal standard (harmlessness) to a record that the presentation of evidence is no longer likely to affect. In such a case, we think it conceptually clearer for the judge to ask directly, "Do I, the judge, think that the error substantially influenced the jury's decision?" than for the judge to try to put the same question in terms

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of proof burdens (e. g., "Do I believe the party has borne its burden of showing. . . ?"). As Chief Justice Traynor said:

"Whether or not...

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