Federal habeas corpus, Harmless error, Federal courts, Brecht v. Abrahamson, Chapman v. California, Kotteakos v. United States, Brecht-Kotteakos rule, Orndorff v. Lockhart, Richmond v. Lewis, Capital sentencing
Courts | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure
The law of habeas corpus has changed again. This time it was the law of harmless error. Before Brecht v. Abrahamson, the courts applied the same harmless error rule on direct appeal and in federal habeas corpus. Under that rule, embraced for constitutional errors in Chapman v. California, a conviction tainted by a constitutional error susceptible to harmless error analysis could be upheld only if the state demonstrated that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. After Brecht, the venerable Chapman rule still applies to constitutional errors identified and reviewed on direct appeal, but an ostensibly "less onerous" standard applies to constitutional errors identified and reviewed on federal habeas corpus. Under this standard, derived from Kotteakos v. United States, and once used only for nonconstitutional errors, a conviction tainted by constitutional error "requires reversal only if it 'had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.'"
The following Article provides a concise overview and analysis of Brecht, focusing especially on the opinions of the Chief Justice and Justice Stevens. It explores the structure of the Brecht-Kotteakos rule, both as articulated in the Brecht opinion and as interpreted thus far by the lower federal courts. Its principal conclusion is that on careful analysis the Brecht-Kotteakos rule and the Chapman rule, though doubtlessly different, turn out not to be that different. Finally, this Article examines various exceptions to the Brecht Kotteakos rule, as well as the limited authority of the federal habeas courts to apply harmless error analysis to errors infecting the penalty phase of a capital trial.
Blume, John H. and Garvey, Stephen P., "Harmless Error in Federal Habeas Corpus After Brecht v. Abrahamson" (1993). Cornell Law Faculty Publications. Paper 294.
Published in: William and Mary Law Review, vol. 35, no. 1 (Fall 1993).