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Supreme Court rules harmless error standard applies in jury instructions case

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] ruled [opinion, PDF] in a per curiam opinion Tuesday in Hedgpeth v. Pulido [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a harmless error standard should be applied when evaluating a conviction based on a general verdict where the jury was given alternate theories, including an invalid one. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] had ruled [opinion, PDF] that it was a "structural error," and overturned the conviction. As the case progressed, both Pulido and the state of California came to agree that it should not have been labeled as "structural error," but Pulido argued that the Ninth Circuit had already engaged in the necessary harmless error analysis required by the 1993 Supreme Court decision in Brecht v. Abrahamson [opinion text]. The Court found that no such analysis had been conducted and remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit, writing:

Pulido nonetheless maintains we should affirm because the Court of Appeals effectively engaged in the Brecht analysis, despite its clear description of the error as "structural." But despite full briefing on the applicability of Brecht, the Court of Appeals mentioned Brecht only briefly in a footnote and then went on to agree with Pulido's alternative assertion that "the instructional error was structural and therefore not subject to harmless error review." The court also stated that the conviction had to be overturned unless the court was "absolutely certain" that the jury relied on a valid ground. Such a determination would appear to be a finding that no violation had occurred at all, rather than that any error was harmless. [citations omitted]
All nine justices agreed that a harmless error standard should apply, but Justice John Paul Stevens issued a dissent as to the remand, in which Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. Stevens found that the circuit court had conducted a proper harmless error analysis, writing:
The Court of Appeals misused the term "structural error" in its opinion affirming the District Court's order granting Pulido's application for a writ of habeas corpus. But the court's misnomer was inconsequential because its decision rested on substantially the same analysis as the District Court's, which correctly applied the standards set forth in Kotteakos v. United States, Brecht v. Abrahamson, and O'Neal v. McAninch. [citations omitted]

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