Two standards apply. The Chapman standard is used in State courts for direct reviews. The Brecht standard is used in federal courts for collateral reviews. Chapman and Brecht are both U. S. Supreme Court decisions.
Why did the Supreme Court setup a dual standard for determining whether a trial court error was harmless? The answer is in the Fry opinion -- it did so in order to give preference to the State Courts' decisions:
Application of Chapman [in federal court reviews] would undermin[e] the States’ interest in finality; would infring[e] upon [the States’] sovereignty over criminal matters; would undercut the historic limitation of habeas relief to those grievously wronged; and would impos[e] significant societal costs.
How do the Chapman and Brecht standards differ? We take our definitions direct from the Fry opinion.
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.
In Brecht . . . an error is harmless unless it "had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict."
Isn't this just mumbo jumbo? Is there really any difference between the two standards? If the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, didn't it have substantial and injurious effect if it contributed to the conviction of an innocent person?
The Supreme Court further muddied the waters in its decision in O'Neal v. McAninch (1995):
Held: When a federal habeas court finds a constitutional trial error and is in grave doubt about whether the error had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict," the error is not harmless, and the petitioner must win.
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