Monday, June 11, 2007

FRY v. PLILER -- The different standards for harmless error

Today the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Fry v. Pliler, which dealt with the standards that are used by the state and federal appellate courts to determine if a trial court error was harmless. The error is harmless if, in the appellate court's opinion, it did not prevent a different trial outcome.

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.

Read the Fry opinion, and share your Comments with us.

1 comment:

Kitty said...

From the PWC Newsletter:

"The Innocence Network, a pro bono legal network that provides appellate representation and investigation services to prisoners whose innocence might be proven based on compelling evidence post-conviction, filed an amicus brief on January 22, 2007 on Fry’s behalf, arguing that the Brecht standard should only be used in federal courts if the state has conducted a Chapman review of the trial error."

Fry's position was supported by the Innocence Network. I'm sure they regret this week's Supreme Court decision.