United States v. Frady

Citation456 U.S. 152,71 L.Ed.2d 816,102 S.Ct. 1584
Decision Date05 April 1982
Docket NumberNo. 80-1595,80-1595
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Joseph C. FRADY
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

In 1963, respondent was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by a jury in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, which at that time had exclusive jurisdiction over local felonies committed in the District. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which then acted as the local appellate court, upheld the conviction but set aside the death sentence, and respondent was then resentenced to a life term. Respondent filed the present motion in the District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (the latest in a long series of collateral attacks on his sentence), seeking to vacate the sentence on the ground that he was convicted by a jury erroneously instructed on the meaning of malice, thus allegedly eliminating any possibility of a manslaughter verdict. The District Court denied the motion because respondent failed to challenge the instructions on direct appeal or in prior motions. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the proper standard to apply to respondent's claim was the "plain error" standard of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) governing relief on direct appeal from errors not objected to at trial, and, finding the challenged instruction plainly erroneous, vacated respondent's sentence and remanded the case for a new trial or entry of a manslaughter judgment.

Held :

1. This Court has jurisdiction to review the decision below and is not required to refrain from doing so on the alleged ground that the decision of the Court of Appeals was based on an adequate and independent local ground of decision. There is no basis for concluding that the ruling below was or should have been grounded on local District of Columbia law, rather than on the general federal law applied to all § 2255 motions. Equal protection principles do not require that a § 2255 motion by a prisoner convicted in 1963 be treated as though it were a motion under the District of Columbia Code after 1970. Pp. 1590-1591.

2. The Court of Appeals' use of Rule 52(b)'s "plain error" standard to review respondent's § 2255 motion was contrary to long-established law. Because it was intended for use on direct appeal, such standard is out of place when a prisoner launches a collateral attack against a conviction after society's legitimate interest in the finality of the judgment has been perfected by the expiration of time allowed for direct review or by the affirmance of the conviction on appeal. To obtain collateral relief a prisoner must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal. Pp. 162-166.

3. The proper standard for review of respondent's conviction is the "cause and actual prejudice" standard under which, to obtain collateral relief based on trial errors to which no contemporaneous objection was made, a convicted defendant must show both "cause" excusing his double procedural default and "actual prejudice" resulting from the errors of which he complains. Pp. 167-169.

4. Respondent has fallen far short of meeting his burden of showing not merely that the errors at his trial created a possibility of prejudice but that they worked to his actual and substantial disadvantage, infecting his entire trial with error of constitutional dimensions. The strong uncontradicted evidence of malice in the record, coupled with respondent's utter failure to come forward with a colorable claim that he acted without malice, disposes of his contention that he suffered such actual prejudice that reversal of his conviction 19 years later could be justified. Moreover, an examination of the jury instructions shows no substantial likelihood that the same jury that found respondent guilty of first-degree murder would have concluded, if only the malice instructions had been better framed that his crime was only manslaughter. Pp. 169-175.

204 U.S.App.D.C. 234, 636 F.2d 506, reversed and remanded.

Andrew L. Frey, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Daniel M. Schember, Washington, D. C., for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permits a criminal conviction to be overturned on direct appeal for "plain error" in the jury instructions, even if the defend- ant failed to object to the erroneous instructions before the jury retired, as required by Rule 30. In this case we are asked to decide whether the same standard of review applies on a collateral challenge to a criminal conviction brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.


Joseph Frady, the respondent, does not dispute that 19 years ago he and Richard Gordon killed Thomas Bennett in the front room of the victim's house in Washington, D. C. Nonetheless, because the resolution of this case depends on what the jury learned about Frady's crime, we must briefly recount what happened, as told by the witnesses at Frady's trial and summarized by the Court of Appeals. See Frady v. United States, 121 U.S.App.D.C. 78, 348 F.2d 84 (en banc), (Frady I), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 909, 86 S.Ct. 247, 15 L.Ed.2d 160 (1965).

The events leading up to the killing began at about 4:30 p. m. on March 13, 1963, when two women saw Frady drive slowly by Bennett's house in an old car. Later, at about 7:00 p. m., Frady, accompanied by Richard Gordon and Gordon's friend, Elizabeth Ryder, returned to the same block. On this second trip, Ryder overheard Frady say "something about that is the house over there," at which point Frady and Gordon looked in the direction of the victim's house.

After reconnoitering Bennett's home, Frady, Gordon, and Ryder drove across town to a restaurant, where they were joined by George Bennett, Thomas Bennett's brother. At the restaurant Ryder heard George Bennett tell Frady that "he needed time to get the furniture and things settled." She also heard Frady ask Bennett "if he hit a man in the chest, could you break a rib and fracture or puncture a lung, could it kill a person?" Bennett answered that "[y]ou have to hit a man pretty hard." Just before they left the restaurant, Ryder heard George Bennett say: "If you do a good job you will get a bonus."

Ryder, Gordon, and Frady then set out by car for 11th Place, around the corner from Thomas Bennett's home, where they parked, leaving the motor running. Gordon and Frady told Ryder they were going "just around the corner." As Gordon got out, Ryder saw him reach down and pick up something. She could not see exactly what it was, but it "looked like a cuff of a glove or heavy material of some kind."

A little after 8:30 p. m., a neighbor heard knocking at the front door of Bennett's house, followed by the noise of a fight in progress. At 8:44 p. m., she called the police. Within a couple of minutes, two policemen in a patrol wagon arrived, and one of them got out in time to see Frady and Gordon emerge from Bennett's front door.

Inside Bennett's house, police officers later found a shambles of broken, disordered furniture and blood-spattered walls. Thomas Bennett lay dead in a pool of blood. His neck and chest had suffered horseshoe-shaped wounds from the metal heel plates on Frady's leather boots and his head was caved in by blows from a broken piece of a tabletop, which, significantly, bore no fingerprints. One of Bennett's eyes had been knocked from its socket.

Outside, the policeman on foot heard Frady and Gordon exclaim, "The cops!" as they emerged from the house. They immediately took flight, running around the corner toward their waiting automobile. Both officers pursued, one on foot, the other in the police wagon. As Frady and Gordon ran, one of them threw Thomas Bennett's wallet and a pair of gloves under a parked car. Frady and Gordon managed to reach their waiting automobile and scramble into it without being captured by the officer following on foot, but the patrol wagon arrived in time to block their departure. One of them was then heard to remark, "They've got us." When arrested, Frady and Gordon were covered with their victim's blood. Unlike their victim, however, neither had sustained an injury, apart from a cut on Gordon's forehead.


Although Frady now admits that the evidence that he and Gordon caused Bennett's death was "overwhelming," 1 at his trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Frady defended solely by denying all responsibility for the killing, suggesting through his attorney that another man, the real murderer, had been seen leaving the victim's house while the police were preoccupied apprehending Frady and Gordon. Consistent with this theory, Frady did not raise any justification, excuse, or mitigating circumstance. A jury convicted Frady of first-degree murder and robbery, and sentenced him to death by electrocution.

Sitting en banc, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld Frady's first-degree murder conviction by a vote of 8-1. Frady I, supra. Apparently all nine judges would have affirmed a conviction for second-degree murder.2

Nevertheless, by a vote of 5-4, the court set aside Frady's death sentence. The five judges in the majority were unable to agree on a rationale for that result. Four of the five believed the procedures used to instruct and poll the jury on the death penalty were too ambiguous to sustain a sentence of death.3 The fifth and deciding vote was cast by a judge who believed the District Court should have adopted, for the first time in the District of Columbia, a procedure bifurcating the guilt and sentencing phases of Frady's trial. 121 U.S.App.D.C., at 85, 348 F.2d, at 91 (McGowan, J., concurring). By this narrow margin, Frady escaped electrocution.

Frady was then resentenced to a life term. Almost immediately, he began a long series of collateral attacks on his sentence,4 culminating...

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