Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 84-1279

Decision Date07 April 1986
Docket NumberNo. 84-1279,84-1279
Citation106 S.Ct. 1431,89 L.Ed.2d 674,475 U.S. 673
PartiesDELAWARE, Petitioner, v. Robert E. VAN ARSDALL
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

During respondent's murder trial, the Delaware trial court refused to allow defense counsel to cross-examine a prosecution witness about an agreement that he had made to speak with the prosecutor about the murder in question in exchange for the dismissal of an unrelated criminal charge against him. Respondent was convicted. The Delaware Supreme Court reversed on the ground that the trial court, by improperly restricting defense counsel's cross-examination designed to show bias on the prosecution witness' part, violated respondent's rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, and refused to consider whether such ruling was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Held: While the trial court's denial of respondent's opportunity to impeach the prosecution witness for bias violated respondent's rights under the Confrontation Clause, such ruling is subject to harmless-error analysis under Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967). The correct inquiry is whether, assuming that the damaging potential of the cross-examination were fully realized, a reviewing court might nonetheless say that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Whether such an error is harmless in a particular case depends upon a number of factors, including the importance of the witness' testimony, whether the testimony was cumulative, the presence or absence of corroborating or contradictory testimony on material points, the extent of cross-examination otherwise permitted, and the overall strength of the prosecution's case. Pp. 681-684.

486 A.2d 1 (Del.1984), vacated and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 684. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 686, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 689, filed dissenting opinions.

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr., Wilmington, Del., for petitioner.

Paul J. Larkin, Jr., Washington, D.C., for U.S., as amicus curiae, in support of petitioner, by special leave of Court.

John Williams, Dover Del., for respondent.

Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Robert Van Arsdall was convicted of murder in a Delaware trial court. The Supreme Court of Delaware reversed his conviction on the ground that the trial court, by improperly restricting defense counsel's cross-examination designed to show bias on the part of a prosecution witness, had violated respondent's confrontation rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and that such violation required automatic reversal. 486 A.2d 1 (Del.1984). While we agree that the trial court's ruling was contrary to the mandate of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, we conclude that the Supreme Court of Delaware was wrong when it declined to consider whether that ruling was harmless in the context of the trial as a whole.

Shortly after midnight on January 1, 1982, Doris Epps was stabbed to death in an apartment in Smyrna, Delaware, after an all-day New Year's Eve party. Respondent and Daniel Pregent, who by respondent's testimony were the only two people in the apartment with Epps at the time she was killed, were arrested at the scene of the crime and charged with Epps' murder. At separate trials, respondent was convicted and Pregent was acquitted.

The State's case against respondent was based on circumstantial evidence, and proceeded on the theory that respondent had either killed Epps or assisted Pregent in doing so. Several of the partygoers testified about the party and the scene after the killing. The party, which lasted from late in the morning of December 31, 1981, until shortly before midnight, was held in the adjacent apartments of Pregent and Robert Fleetwood. Respondent, who was one of at least a dozen guests who attended the party during the course of the day, had stopped in for two brief periods in the late afternoon and early evening and then returned for a third time at about 11:30 p.m. By that time the party was over. Pregent had quarreled with a female guest, kicked a hole in a hallway wall and had to be restrained. An intoxicated Epps had been placed on a sofa bed in Pregent's apartment after passing out. And shortly before 11 p.m., a second altercation of some kind occurred, prompting Fleetwood to close the party in his apartment to everyone except his two friends, Alice Meinier and Mark Mood. When respondent returned to Pregent's apartment at about 11:30, only Pregent and Epps were present.

Robert Fleetwood was the 10th of 16 prosecution witnesses. In addition to recounting uncontroverted facts about the party, he testified that sometime between 11 and 11:30 p.m. he walked across the hall, looked into Pregent's living room from the doorway, and saw respondent sitting on the edge of the sofa bed next to Pregent's feet. Fleetwood, who did not have a complete view of the bed, did not see Epps or anyone else in the apartment. Upon returning to his own apartment, Fleetwood stayed awake long enough to hear nearby bells ring in the New Year, at which point he passed out. App. 82-85.

Meinier, who with Mood had remained awake in Fleetwood's apartment, testified that at roughly 1 a.m. respondent knocked at Fleetwood's door. Respondent's shirt and hands were spattered with blood, and he was holding a long, blood-covered knife. According to Meinier, respondent stated that "he had gotten in a fight" but that he "got them back." Id., at 130. After turning the knife over to Mood and washing his hands, respondent said "I think there's something wrong across the hall." Id., at 132. Meinier went to Pregent's apartment and discovered Epps' body lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. Mood then summoned the police, who found respondent in Fleetwood's apartment and Pregent asleep on the blood-splattered sofa bed in his living room.

In addition to the testimony of the partygoers and the arresting officers, the State introduced Pregent's postarrest statement, respondent's two postarrest statements, and the testimony of a forensic expert. Among other things, the expert testified about the nature and source of the bloodstains on respondent's clothing.

During Fleetwood's cross-examination, defense counsel sought to impeach Fleetwood by questioning him about the dismissal of a criminal charge against him—being drunk on a highway—after he had agreed to speak with the prosecutor about Epps' murder. When the prosecutor objected, the trial court allowed counsel to question Fleetwood on the matter outside the presence of the jury. Fleetwood acknowledged that the drunkenness charge had been dropped in exchange for his promise to speak with the prosecutor about the murder, but he denied that the agreement had affected his testimony.1 The trial court barred any cross-examination about that agreement, citing Delaware Rule of Evidence 403.2 The court also refused to permit defense counsel to cross-examine Fleetwood about his being questioned by the police in connection with an unrelated homicide that had occurred after Epps' murder. On voir dire conducted outside the presence of the jury, Fleetwood denied that he had been offered any favors, inducements, promises, or deals concerning that homicide investigation in exchange for his testimony at respondent's trial.

Respondent was the only defense witness. Consistent with his second statement to the police, he attributed Epps' murder to Pregent. Consistent with Fleetwood's testimony, he stated that he had returned to Pregent's apartment, after drinking with friends, by about 11:30 p.m.

Defense counsel admitted in their opening and closing arguments to the jury that respondent was in Pregent's apartment when Epps was killed. In closing argument, after attempting to discredit Fleetwood's testimony (largely by emphasizing his intoxication), counsel stressed that all that testimony proved was what respondent "never denied," that "he was at Danny Pregent's apartment before Doris Epps was murdered." App. 188-189. The jury found respondent guilty of first-degree murder and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony.

On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed respondent's conviction on the authority of the Confrontation Clause. Noting that "the bias of a witness is subject to exploration at trial and is 'always relevant as discrediting the witness and affecting the weight of his testimony,' " 486 A.2d, at 6 (quoting Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 316, 94 S.Ct. 1105, 1110, 39 L.Ed.2d 347 (1974)), the court found that the trial judge's ruling denied respondent his constitutional right to effective cross-examination. By barring any cross-examination of Fleetwood about the dismissal of the public drunkenness charge, the ruling kept from the jury facts concerning bias that were central to assessing Fleetwood's reliability. The court rejected the State's argument that since "Fleetwood's basic testimony was cumulative in nature and unimportant," the Confrontation Clause error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. 486 A.2d, at 7. The court held that "a blanket prohibition against exploring potential bias through cross-examination" is "a per se error," so that "the actual prejudicial impact of such an error is not examined." Ibid.3

We granted certiorari, 473 U.S. 923, 105 S.Ct. 3552, 87 L.Ed.2d 674 (1985), and now vacate and remand.

The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of an accused in a criminal prosecution "to be confronted with the witnesses against him." The right of confrontation, which is secured for defendants in state as well as federal criminal proceedings, Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400, 85 S.Ct. 1065, 13 L.Ed.2d 923 (1965), "means more than being...

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