551 U.S. 112 (2007), 06-5247, Fry v. Pliler

Docket Nº:06-5247.
Citation:551 U.S. 112, 127 S.Ct. 2321, 168 L.Ed.2d 16
Opinion Judge:Scalia, Justice
Party Name:John Francis FRY, Petitioner, v. Cheryl K. PLILER, Warden.
Case Date:June 11, 2007
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 112

551 U.S. 112 (2007)

127 S.Ct. 2321, 168 L.Ed.2d 16

John Francis FRY, Petitioner,

v.

Cheryl K. PLILER, Warden.

No. 06-5247.

United States Supreme Court

June 11, 2007

Argued March 20, 2007.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

[127 S.Ct. 2322] Syllabus

The trial judge presiding over petitioner's criminal trial excluded the testimony of defense-witness Pamela Maples. After his conviction, petitioner argued on appeal, inter alia, that the exclusion of Maples' testimony violated Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 93 S.Ct. 1038, 35 L.Ed.2d 297, which held that a combination of erroneous evidentiary rulings rose to the level of a due-process violation. The California Court of Appeal did not explicitly address that argument in affirming, but stated, without specifying which harmless-error standard it was applying, that "no possible prejudice" could have resulted in light of the cumulative nature of Maples' testimony. The State Supreme Court denied discretionary review. Petitioner then filed a federal habeas petition raising the due-process and other claims. The Magistrate Judge found the state appellate court's failure to recognize Chambers error an unreasonable application of clearly established law as set forth by this Court, and disagreed with the finding of "no possible prejudice," but concluded there was an insufficient showing that the improper exclusion of Maples' testimony had a "substantial and injurious effect" on the jury's verdict under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 631, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353.[127 S.Ct. 2323] Agreeing, the District Court denied relief, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held:

In 28 U.S.C. §2254 proceedings, a federal court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial under Brecht's "substantial and injurious effect" standard, whether or not the state appellate court recognized the error and reviewed it for harmlessness under the "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" stanset forth in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705. Pp. 166-122.

(a) That Brecht applies in §2254 cases even if the state appellate court has not found, as did the state appellate court in Brecht, that the error was harmless under Chapman, is indicated by this Court's Brecht opinion, which did not turn on whether the state court itself conducted Chapman review, but instead cited concerns about finality, comity, and federalism as the primary reasons for adopting a less onerous standard on collateral review. 507 U.S. at 637, 113 S.Ct. 1710. Since each of these concerns applies with equal force whether or not the state court reaches the Chapman question, it would be illogical to make the standard of review turn upon that contingency. Brecht, supra, at 636, 113 S.Ct. 1710, distinguished.

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Petitioner presents a false analogy in arguing that, if Brecht applies whether or not the state appellate court conducted Chapman review, then Brecht would apply even if a State eliminated appellate review altogether. The Court also rejects petitioner's contention that, even if Brecht adopted a categorical rule, post-Brecht developments--the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), as interpreted in Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 124 S.Ct. 7, 157 L.Ed.2d 263--require a different review standard. That result is not suggested by Esparza, which had no reason to decide the point, nor by AEDPA, which sets forth a precondition, not an entitlement, to the grant of habeas relief. Pp. 116-120.

(b) Petitioner's argument that the judgment below must still be reversed because excluding Maples' testimony substantially and injuriously affected the jury's verdict is rejected as not fairly encompassed by the question presented. Pp. 120-122.

Affirmed.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to all but footnote 1 and Part II-B. Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined that opinion in full; Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined it as to all but Part II-B; and Breyer, J., joined as to all but footnote 1 and Part II-B. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Souter and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, and in which Breyer, J., joined in part, post, p. 122. Breyer, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 126.

COUNSEL

Victor S. Haltom, by appointment of the Court, 549 U. S. 1165, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was John R. Duree, Jr.

Ross C. Moody, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Attorney General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Manuel M. Medeiros, State Solicitor General, Gerald A. Engler, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Donald E. de Nicola, Deputy Solicitor General, and Peggy S. Ruffra, Supervising Deputy Attorney General.

Patricia A. Millett argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. On the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Assistant Attorney General

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Fisher, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, Jonathan L. Marcus, and Joel M. Gershowitz[*]

OPINION

Scalia, Justice.

We decide whether a federal habeas court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial under the "substantial and injurious effect" standard set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353 (1993), when the state appellate court failed to recognize the error and did not review it for harmlessness under the "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" standard set forth in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967).

I

After two mistrials on account of hung juries, a third jury convicted petitioner of the 1992 murders of James and Cynthia Bell. At trial, petitioner sought to attribute the murders to one or more other persons. To that end, he offered testimony of several witnesses who linked one Anthony Hurtz to the killings. But the trial court excluded the testimony of one additional witness, Pamela Maples, who was

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prepared to testify that she had heard Hurtz discussing homicides bearing some resemblance to the murder of the Bells. In the trial court's view, the defense had provided insufficient evidence to link the incidents described by Hurtz to the murders for which petitioner was charged.

Following his conviction, petitioner appealed to the California Court of Appeal, arguing (among other things) that the trial court's exclusion of Maples' testimony deprived him of a fair opportunity to defend himself, in violation of Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 93 S.Ct. 1038, 35 L.Ed.2d 297 (1973) (holding that a combination of erroneous evidentiary rulings rose to the level of a due process violation). Without explicitly addressing petitioner's Chambers argument, the state appellate court held that the trial court had not abused its discretion in excluding Maples' testimony under California's evidentiary rules, adding that "no possible prejudice" could have resulted in light of the "merely cumulative" nature of the testimony. People v. Fry, No. A072396 (Ct. App. Cal., 1st App. Dist., Mar. 30, 2000), App. 97, n. 17. The court did not specify which harmless-error standard it was applying in concluding that petitioner suffered "no possible prejudice." The Supreme Court of California denied discretionary review, and petitioner did not then seek a writ of certiorari from this Court.

Petitioner next filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, raising the aforementioned due-process claim (among others). The case was initially assigned to a Magistrate Judge, who ultimately recommended denying relief. He found the state appellate court's failure to recognize error under Chambers to be "an unreasonable application of clearly established law as set forth by the Supreme Court," App. 180, and disagreed with the state appellate court's finding of "no possible prejudice." But he nevertheless concluded that "there ha[d] been an insufficient showing that the improper exclusion of the testimony of Ms. Maples had a

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substantial and injurious effect on the jury's verdict" under the standard set forth in Brecht. App. 181-182. The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations in full, and a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. We granted certiorari. 549 U.S. 1092, 127 S.Ct. 763, 166 L.Ed.2d 590 (2006).

[127 S.Ct. 2325] II

A

In Chapman, supra, a case that reached this Court on direct review of a state-court criminal judgment, we held that a federal constitutional error can be considered harmless only if a court is "able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt." Id., at 24, 87 S.Ct. 824. In Brecht, supra, we considered whether the Chapman standard of review applies on collateral review of a state-court criminal judgment under 28 U.S.C. §2254. Citing concerns about finality, comity, and federalism, we rejected the Chapman standard in favor of the more forgiving standard of review applied to non constitutional errors on direct appeal from federal convictions. See Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 66 S.Ct. 1239, 90 L.Ed. 1557 (1946). Under that standard, an error is harmless unless it " 'had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.' " Brecht, supra, at 631, 113 S.Ct. 1710 (quoting Kotteakos, supra, at 776, 66 S.Ct....

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