Brecht v. Abrahamson

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507 U.S. 619 (1993), argued 1 Dec. 1992, decided 21 Apr. 1993 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Souter, White, Blackmun, and O’Connor in dissent.

In the early 1990s the Supreme Court struggled over the scope of the habeas corpus authority of the federal courts to hear and scrutinize state court criminal justice rulings. That struggle was part of a larger societal debate about how to deal with rising crime rates. Law enforcement officials, for their part, insisted that the federal courts had too willingly accepted habeas corpus petitions and in so doing failed to foster an appropriate sense of finality and of timely punishment. Defendants’ rights advocates countered that by restricting access to habeas corpus protections in the federal courts, innocent persons would be wrongly convicted and prisoners denied a constitutional means of redress.

Brecht raised these concerns in a case involving Todd A. Brecht, who had been convicted in a Wisconsin court for shooting his brother-in-law to death. The prosecutor made known to the jury that Brecht had refused to say anything else to authorities after being read his Miranda rights, which include a provision advising him that he had a right to remain silent. The Supreme Court had ruled in Stone v. Powell (1976) that a jury should not be told of a defendant's refusal to talk. Brecht sought a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that the trial judge had erred in permitting the trial to go forward.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who sought to limit the scope of habeas corpus, succeeded in forging a majority to do just that. The general standard for error by the prosecution in a trial requires a conviction to be overturned unless the error was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Rehnquist added teeth to this requirement by finding that a state ruling should not be disturbed unless the violation “had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict” (p. 627). He said federal habeas corpus review should be reserved for the most outrageous cases in which clear evidence proved that a prisoner had been harmed by prejudice in the trial. If a defendant's guilt was not actually in doubt, the federal courts should not overturn a state verdict. In this case, Rehnquist decided, the error was harmless and the guilt of Brecht beyond doubt.

The Brecht decision further narrowed the grounds for appeal through a habeas corpus proceeding. At the same time, however, the justices left open a narrow window of appeal in the case of Withrow v. Williams (1993), decided at the same time as Brecht. The dissenters in Brecht, led by Justice David Souter, decided that federal courts should remain open to appeals from state prisoners challenging their convictions on the grounds that they were interrogated by the police without being told of their right to remain silent. In Withrow, of course, the prisoner had not been advised of his rights; in Brecht he had. Still, the two decisions underscored the close division and continuing tension in the Court over the habeas corpus issue.


Subjects: Law.

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