Lufkins v. Leapley

Decision Date24 June 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-1697,91-1697
Citation965 F.2d 1477
Parties35 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 652 Dennis LUFKINS, Appellee, v. Walter LEAPLEY, Warden of the South Dakota State Penitentiary; Mark Barnett, Attorney General for the State of South Dakota, Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Craig M. Eichstadt, Deputy Atty. Gen. (argued), Pierre, S.D., for appellants.

Robert C. Riter, Jr. (argued), Pierre, S.D., for appellee.

Before FAGG, Circuit Judge, HEANEY, Senior Circuit Judge, and MAGILL, Circuit Judge.

MAGILL, Circuit Judge.

The State of South Dakota appeals the district court's grant of habeas corpus relief to Dennis Lufkins. The district court found that Lufkins' 1980 trial counsel was ineffective in the cross-examination of three witnesses and, therefore, the admission of their statements against Lufkins in a later trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses. We agree that ineffective cross-examination may under certain circumstances preclude the admission of testimony in a subsequent proceeding. But since we find that the admission of the three statements in this case was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we reverse the granting of habeas relief.

I.

Petitioner Dennis Lufkins was at the home of Ernest Hayes in Sisseton, South Dakota, on December 4, 1979, along with Hayes, Eugene Hedine, Matthew Blue Dog, and Ruth Titus. Sylvester Johnson arrived at the home with some wine at about 10:30 a.m. The group drank the wine and later that afternoon consumed a bottle of rubbing alcohol. At about 9:30 to 10:00 p.m., Lufkins and Johnson began to fight. Lufkins grabbed an axe by the blade and swung the handle, striking Johnson on the right side of the head.

Johnson fell to the floor, but regained his feet with the help of Hayes and Hedine. After Johnson fell again, Hayes helped him outside to a car and began driving him to a hospital. Johnson had been alert for a short period after the blow, but passed out in the car. When Johnson's skin began to darken, Hayes believed he had died. Hayes stopped the car, dragged Johnson's body to a church lawn, left it there, and returned to his home. Johnson's lifeless body was found the next morning.

An autopsy revealed that Johnson had died as the result of a single blow to the head by a blunt instrument. After receiving the autopsy, the Roberts County Sheriff's Office began an investigation. An informant indirectly implicated Lufkins. Roberts County Sheriff Neil Long and Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Delbert Peterson interviewed Lufkins about the death. After being informed of his rights, Lufkins admitted striking Johnson on the right side of the head with an axe handle. Lufkins later signed a statement making the same admission.

Lufkins' initial trial began on June 2, 1980, but was aborted when he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. Lufkins was allowed to withdraw his plea on June 12, 1980, and was subsequently convicted of first-degree manslaughter in a second trial later that month. At this second trial, Ernest Hayes, Matthew Blue Dog, and Eugene Hedine testified as to a similar course of events leading up to the fateful altercation between Johnson and Lufkins. The three men also testified that they witnessed Lufkins strike Johnson on the right side of the head with an axe handle. Lufkins subsequently pleaded guilty to being a habitual criminal and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The conviction and sentence were affirmed by the South Dakota Supreme Court. State v. Lufkins, 309 N.W.2d 331 (S.D.1981).

Lufkins then filed his first habeas petition in federal district court, arguing that the state trial court violated his due process rights by failing to hold a hearing on the voluntariness of his confession outside the presence of the jury. Lufkins also claimed his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the lack of a hearing. The district court granted habeas relief, holding that Lufkins' trial counsel provided ineffective representation by failing to object to the state court's constitutionally deficient hearing on the voluntariness of Lufkins' confession. Lufkins v. Solem, 554 F.Supp. 988, 994 (D.S.D.1983). This court affirmed, agreeing with the trial court that Lufkins' trial counsel provided ineffective representation by failing to object to the lack of a voluntariness hearing, by failing to make a motion to sequester witnesses during the trial, and by bolstering the testimony of a prosecution witness. Lufkins v. Solem, 716 F.2d 532, 541-42 (8th Cir.1983), cert. denied, 467 U.S. 1219, 104 S.Ct. 2667, 81 L.Ed.2d 372 (1984).

The state retried Lufkins. Prior to this third trial, the state court held a hearing on numerous motions. The trial court concluded, inter alia, that Lufkins' statement to police was voluntary and, therefore, admissible. The trial court also ruled that Hayes, Blue Dog, and Hedine were not available to testify at the third trial despite the good-faith efforts of the state to secure their presence. The court thus ruled that the prior testimony of Hayes, Blue Dog, and Hedine from the 1980 trial could be read into the record in the third trial.

The third trial began on October 31, 1984. Lufkins' admission and the transcript testimony of Hayes, Blue Dog, and Hedine was read into evidence. On November 5, 1984, the jury convicted Lufkins of first-degree manslaughter. Lufkins later pleaded guilty to being a habitual offender and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence. State v. Lufkins, 381 N.W.2d 263 (S.D.1986).

Lufkins filed this second habeas petition on May 14, 1987, alleging his conviction was based on a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. 1 The district court granted habeas relief, ruling that defense counsel in Lufkins' 1980 conviction was ineffective in cross-examining Hayes, Blue Dog, and Hedine. Since competent trial counsel would have better attacked the credibility of the three witnesses, the district court concluded that the testimony bore insufficient indicia of reliability to be admitted as evidence during the third trial. Lufkins v. Solem, No. 87-1016, mem. (D.S.D. Feb. 14, 1991).

II.

It has long been clear that constitutional violations can be subject to harmless error analysis. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 22, 87 S.Ct. 824, 827, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967). Indeed, this is true of most constitutional violations. Arizona v. Fulminante, --- U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 1263, 113 L.Ed.2d 302 (1991). The factor determining when a constitutional violation is subject to harmless error analysis is whether the violation constituted trial error or whether it constituted a structural defect in the case itself. Id. 111 S.Ct. at 1264-65. This distinction is important because errors occurring during the course of the trial may be assessed quantitatively along with the other evidence presented at trial. It is possible, therefore, to determine if trial errors were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. 111 S.Ct. at 1264. On the other hand, structural defects, such as the total deprivation of right to counsel, can never be subject to harmless error analysis because they call into question the legitimacy of the entire proceeding. Id. at 1265.

Violations of the right to confront witnesses under the Sixth Amendment are subject to harmless error analysis. In Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 126, 88 S.Ct. 1620, 1622, 20 L.Ed.2d 476 (1968), the Supreme Court held that the admission of the confession of a codefendant who did not take the stand at a joint trial violated a defendant's right to cross-examine witnesses when that confession implicated the defendant. It has been repeatedly held that Bruton errors may be harmless. Harrington v. California, 395 U.S. 250, 253, 89 S.Ct. 1726, 1728, 23 L.Ed.2d 284 (1969); Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. 427, 428, 92 S.Ct. 1056, 1057, 31 L.Ed.2d 340 (1972); Brown v. United States, 411 U.S. 223, 231, 93 S.Ct. 1565, 1570, 36 L.Ed.2d 208 (1973).

The mere finding of a violation of the Bruton rule in the course of the trial, however, does not automatically require reversal of the ensuing criminal conviction. In some cases the properly admitted evidence of guilt is so overwhelming, and the prejudicial effect of the codefendant's admission is so insignificant by comparison, that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the improper use of the admission was harmless error.

Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. at 430, 92 S.Ct. at 1059.

Not only may the complete denial of the right to cross-examine witnesses be harmless, a court's restrictions on a defendant's cross-examination of witnesses may constitute harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt. Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 684, 106 S.Ct. 1431, 1438, 89 L.Ed.2d 674 (1986) (constitutionally improper denial of defendant's opportunity to impeach a witness for bias held to be subject to harmless error analysis). Therefore, in cases where a defendant is given a full opportunity to cross-examine witnesses but is disappointed with the results, the ineffectiveness of that cross-examination--even if it were found to constitute constitutional error--may be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

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 host of factors, all readily accessible to reviewing courts. These factors include the importance of the witness' testimony in the prosecution's case, whether the testimony was cumulative, the presence or absence of evidence corroborating or contradicting the testimony of the witness on material points, the extent of cross-examination otherwise...

To continue reading

Request your trial
65 cases
  • US v. Eagle Thunder
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Dakota
    • February 24, 1994
    ...S.Ct. 1710, 1716-22, 123 L.Ed.2d 353 (1993); United States v. Garbett, 867 F.2d 1132, 1135 (8th Cir.1989); see also, Lufkins v. Leapley, 965 F.2d 1477, 1480-84 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 113 S.Ct. 271, 121 L.Ed.2d 200 (1992). To be admissible, other crimes evidence must be rele......
  • U.S. v. Adams
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • September 22, 1993
    ...circuits have also held that harmless error can be addressed sua sponte in cases where the harmlessness is obvious. See Lufkins v. Leapley, 965 F.2d 1477, 1481 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 271, 121 L.Ed.2d 200 (1992); United States v. Pryce, 938 F.2d 1343, 1347-52 (D.C......
  • Calvert v. Wilson, 00-3713.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • April 24, 2002
    ...Alabama, 45 F.3d 1486, 1492 n. 10 (11th Cir.1995); United States v. Langston, 970 F.2d 692, 704 n. 9 (10th Cir.1992); Lufkins v. Leapley, 965 F.2d 1477, 1481 (8th Cir.1992). These decisions are, of course, merely persuasive authority and are not binding on this Court. However, even if this ......
  • U.S. v. McLaughlin
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit
    • September 11, 1997
    ...960, 116 S.Ct. 410, 133 L.Ed.2d 328 (1995); United States v. Langston, 970 F.2d 692, 704 n. 9 (10th Cir.1992) (same); Lufkins v. Leapley, 965 F.2d 1477, 1481 (8th Cir.1992) (same); United States v. Pryce, 938 F.2d 1343, 1348 (D.C.Cir.1991) In deciding whether to exercise that discretion, th......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
7 books & journal articles
  • Introduction to evidentiary foundations
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2017 Contents
    • July 31, 2017
    ...• whether reversal based on the claimed error will result solely in a futile, costly and protracted proceeding. See Lufkins v. Leapley , 965 F.2d 1477 (8th Cir. 1992). The standard of review for harmless error when constitutional rights are implicated is the same in both civil and criminal ......
  • Introduction to evidentiary foundations
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2018 Contents
    • July 31, 2018
    ...• whether reversal based on the claimed error will result solely in a futile, costly and protracted proceeding. See Lufkins v. Leapley , 965 F.2d 1477 (8th Cir. 1992). The standard of review for harmless error when constitutional rights are implicated is the same in both civil and criminal ......
  • Introduction to Evidentiary Foundations
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2014 Contents
    • July 31, 2014
    ...• whether reversal based on the claimed error will result solely in a futile, costly and protracted proceeding. See Lufkins v. Leapley , 965 F.2d 1477 (8th Cir. 1992). The standard of review for harmless error when constitutional rights are implicated is the same in both civil and criminal ......
  • Tactics
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Trial Evidence Foundations Introduction to Evidentiary Foundations
    • May 5, 2019
    ...• whether reversal based on the claimed error will result solely in a futile, costly and protracted proceeding. See Lufkins v. Leapley , 965 F.2d 1477 (8th Cir. 1992). The standard of review for harmless error when constitutional rights are implicated is the same in both civil and criminal ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT