Smith v. Phillips, 80-1082

Decision Date25 January 1982
Docket NumberNo. 80-1082,80-1082
PartiesHarold J. SMITH, Superintendent, Attica Correctional Facility v. William R. PHILLIPS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

After being convicted of murder at a jury trial in a New York court, respondent moved to vacate his conviction on the ground that a juror in his case submitted during the trial an application for employment as an investigator in the District Attorney's Office, and that the prosecuting attorneys, upon being informed of the juror's application, withheld the information from the trial court and respondent's defense counsel until after the trial. At a hearing on the motion before the same judge who had presided at the trial, the motion was denied, the judge finding "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the events giving rise to the motion did not influence the verdict. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, and the New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal. Subsequently, respondent sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court, alleging that he had been denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment by the conduct of the juror in question. While finding insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the juror was actually biased, the District Court nevertheless imputed bias to him and, accordingly, ordered respondent released unless the State granted him a new trial. The United States Court of Appeals, without considering whether the juror was actually or impliedly biased, affirmed on the ground that the prosecutors' failure to disclose their knowledge about the juror denied respondent due process.

Held: Respondent was not denied due process of law either by the juror's conduct or by the prosecutors' failure to disclose the juror's job application. Pp. 215-221.

(a) Due process does not require a new trial every time a juror has been placed in a potentially compromising situation. Due process means a jury capable and willing to decide the case solely on the evidence before it, and a trial judge ever watchful to prevent prejudicial occurrences and to determine the effect of such occurrences when they happen. Such determinations may properly be made at a hearing like that held in this case. Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 74 S.Ct. 450, 98 L.Ed. 654. Moreover, this being a federal habeas action, the state trial judge's findings are presumptively correct under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Federal courts in such proceedings must not disturb the state courts' findings unless the federal habeas court articulates some basis for disarming such findings of the statutory presumption that they are correct and may be overcome only by convincing evidence. Here, neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals took issue with the state trial judge's findings. Pp. 215-218.

(b) The touchstone of due process analysis in cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct is the fairness of the trial, not the culpability of the prosecutor. Here, the prosecutors' failure to disclose the juror's job application, although requiring a post-trial hearing on juror bias, did not deprive respondent of the fair trial guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 218-221.

(c) Absent a violation of some right guaranteed respondent by the Fourteenth Amendment, it was error for the lower courts to order a new trial. Federal courts hold no supervisory authority over state judicial proceedings and may intervene only to correct wrongs of constitutional dimension. P. 221.

632 F.2d 1019, reversed.

Robert M. Pitler, New York City, for petitioner.

William M. Kunstler, New York City, for respondent.

Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent was convicted in November 1974 by a New York state-court jury on two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. After trial, respondent moved to vacate his conviction pursuant to § 330.30 of the N.Y.Crim.Proc. Law (McKinney 1971) (CPL),1 and a hearing on his mo- tion was held pursuant to CPL § 330.40.2 The hearing was held before the justice who presided at respondent's trial, and the motion to vacate was denied by him in an opinion concluding "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the events giving rise to the motion did not influence the verdict. People v. Phillips, 87 Misc.2d 613, 614, 630, 384 N.Y.S.2d 906, 907-908, 918 (1975). The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, affirmed the conviction without opinion. 52 A.D.2d 758, 384 N.Y.S.2d 715 (1976). The New York Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal. 39 N.Y.2d 949, 352 N.E.2d 894, 386 N.Y.S.2d 1039 (1976).

Some four years after the denial of leave to appeal by the Court of Appeals, respondent sought federal habeas relief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on the same ground which had been asserted in the state post-trial hearing. The District Court granted the writ, 485 F.Supp. 1365 (1980), and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed on a somewhat different ground. 632 F.2d 1019 (1980). We granted certiorari to consider the important questions of federal constitutional law in relation to federal habeas proceedings raised by these decisions. 450 U.S. 909, 101 S.Ct. 1345, 67 L.Ed.2d 332 (1981). We now reverse.

I
A.

Respondent's original motion to vacate his conviction was based on the fact that a juror in respondent's case, one John Dana Smith, submitted during the trial an application for employment as a major felony investigator in the District Attorney's Office.3 Smith had learned of the position from a friend who had contacts within the office and who had inquired on Smith's behalf without mentioning Smith's name or the fact that he was a juror in respondent's trial. When Smith's application was received by the office, his name was placed on a list of applicants but he was not then contacted and was not known by the office to be a juror in respondent's trial.

During later inquiry about the status of Smith's application, the friend mentioned that Smith was a juror in respondent's case. The attorney to whom the friend disclosed this fact promptly informed his superior, and his superior in turn informed the Assistant District Attorney in charge of hiring investigators. The following day, more than one week before the end of respondent's trial, the assistant informed the two attorneys actually prosecuting respondent that one of the jurors had applied to the office for employment as an investigator.

The two prosecuting attorneys conferred about the application but concluded that, in view of Smith's statements during voir dire,4 there was no need to inform the trial court or de- fense counsel of the application. They did instruct attorneys in the office not to contact Smith until after the trial had ended, and took steps to insure that they would learn no information about Smith that had not been revealed during voir dire. When the jury retired to deliberate on November 20th, three alternate jurors were available to substitute for Smith, and neither the trial court nor the defense counsel knew of his application. The jury returned its verdict on November 21st.

The District Attorney first learned of Smith's application on December 4th. Five days later, after an investigation to verify the information, he informed the trial court and defense counsel of the application and the fact that its existence was known to attorneys in his office at some time before the conclusion of the trial. Respondent's attorney then moved to set aside the verdict.

At the hearing before the trial judge, Justice Harold Birns, the prosecuting attorneys explained their decision not to disclose the application and Smith explained that he had seen nothing improper in submitting the application during the trial. Justice Birns, "[f]rom all the evidence adduced" at the hearing, 87 Misc.2d, at 621, 384 N.Y.S.2d, at 912, found that "Smith's letter was indeed an indiscretion" but that it "in no way reflected a premature conclusion as to the [respondent's] guilt, or prejudice against the [respondent], or an inability to consider the guilt or innocence of the [respondent] solely on the evidence." Id., at 627, 384 N.Y.S.2d, at 915. With respect to the conduct of the prosecuting attorneys, Justice Birns found "no evidence" suggesting "a sinister or dishonest motive with respect to Mr. Smith's letter of application." Id., at 618-619, 384 N.Y.S.2d, at 910.

B

In his application for federal habeas relief, respondent contended that he had been denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by Smith's conduct. The District Court found insufficient evidence to demonstrate that Smith was actually biased. 485 F.Supp., at 1371. Nonetheless, the court imputed bias to Smith because "the average man in Smith's position would believe that the verdict of the jury would directly affect the evaluation of his job application." Id., at 1371-1372. Accordingly, the court ordered respondent released unless the State granted him a new trial within 90 days.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed by a divided vote. The court noted that "it is at best difficult and perhaps impossible to learn from a juror's own testimony after the verdict whether he was in fact 'impartial,' " but the court did not consider whether Smith was actually or impliedly biased. 632 F.2d, at 1022. Rather, the Court of Appeals affirmed respondent's release simply because "the failure of the prosecutors to disclose their knowledge denied [respondent] due process." Ibid. The court explained: "To condone the withholding by the prosecutor of information casting substantial doubt as to the impartiality of a juror, such as the fact that he has applied to the prosecutor for employment, would not be fair to a defendant and would ill serve to maintain public confidence in the judicial process."...

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