Chapman v. California

United States Supreme Court

386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967)


Mr. Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court.


            Petitioners, Ruth Elizabeth Chapman and Thomas LeRoy Teale, were convicted in a California state court upon a charge that they robbed, kidnapped, and murdered a bartender. She was sentenced to life imprisonment and he to death. At the time of the trial, Art. I, §13, of the State’s Constitution provided that “in any criminal case, whether the defendant testifies or not, his failure to explain or to deny by his testimony any evidence or facts in the case against him may be commented upon by the court and by counsel, and may be considered by the court or the jury.” Both petitioners in this case chose not to testify at their trial, and the State’s attorney prosecuting them took full advantage of his right under the State Constitution to comment upon their failure to testify, filling his argument to the jury from beginning to end with numerous references to their silence and inferences of their guilt resulting therefrom. The trial court also charged the jury that it could draw adverse inferences from petitioners’ failure to testify. Shortly after the trial, but before petitioners’ cases had been considered on appeal by the California Supreme Court, this Court decided Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, in which we held California’s constitutional provision and practice invalid on the ground that they put a penalty on the exercise of a person’s right not to be compelled to be a witness against himself, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and made applicable to California and the other States by the Fourteenth Amendment. … On appeal, the State Supreme Court, … admitting that petitioners had been denied a federal constitutional right by the comments on their silence, nevertheless affirmed, applying the State Constitution’s harmless-error provision, which forbids reversal unless “the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”


We granted certiorari limited to these questions: “Where there is a violation of the rule of Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, (1) can the error be held to be harmless, and (2) if so, was the error harmless in this case?”…


            In this Court petitioners contend that both these questions are federal ones to be decided under federal law; that under federal law we should hold that denial of a federal constitutional right, no matter how unimportant, should automatically result in reversal of a conviction, without regard to whether the error is considered harmless; and that, if wrong in this, the various comments on petitioners’ silence cannot, applying a federal standard, be considered harmless here.




            Before deciding the two questions here - whether there can ever be harmless constitutional error and whether the error here was harmless - we must first decide whether state or federal law governs. The application of a state harmless-error rule is, of course, a state question where it involves only errors of state procedure or state law. But the error from which these petitioners suffered was a denial of rights guaranteed against invasion by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, rights rooted in the Bill of Rights, offered and championed in the Congress by James Madison, who told the Congress that the “independent” federal courts would be the “guardians of those rights.” Whether a conviction for crime should stand when a State has failed to accord federal constitutionally guaranteed rights is every bit as much of a federal question as what particular federal constitutional provisions themselves mean, what they guarantee, and whether they have been denied. With faithfulness to the constitutional union of the States, we cannot leave to the States the formulation of the authoritative laws, rules, and remedies designed to protect people from infractions by the States of federally guaranteed rights. We have no hesitation in saying that the right of these petitioners not to be punished for exercising their Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment right to be silent - expressly created by the Federal Constitution itself - is a federal right which, in the absence of appropriate congressional action, it is our responsibility to protect by fashioning the necessary rule.




            We are urged by petitioners to hold that all federal constitutional errors, regardless of the facts and circumstances, must always be deemed harmful. Such a holding, as petitioners correctly point out, would require an automatic reversal of their convictions and make further discussion unnecessary. We decline to adopt any such rule. All 50 States have harmless-error statutes or rules, and the United States long ago through its Congress established for its courts the rule that judgments shall not be reversed for “errors or defects which do not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”… None of these rules on its face distinguishes between federal constitutional errors and errors of state law or federal statutes and rules. All of these rules, state or federal, serve a very useful purpose insofar as they block setting aside convictions for small errors or defects that have little, if any, likelihood of having changed the result of the trial. We conclude that there may be some constitutional errors which in the setting of a particular case are so unimportant and insignificant that they may, consistent with the Federal Constitution, be deemed harmless, not requiring the automatic reversal of the conviction.




            In fashioning a harmless-constitutional-error rule, we must recognize that harmless-error rules can work very unfair and mischievous results when, for example, highly important and persuasive evidence, or argument, though legally forbidden, finds its way into a trial in which the question of guilt or innocence is a close one. What harmless-error rules all aim at is a rule that will save the good in harmless-error practices while avoiding the bad, so far as possible.


            The federal rule emphasizes “substantial rights” as do most others. The California constitutional rule emphasizes “a miscarriage of justice,” but the California courts have neutralized this to some extent by emphasis, and perhaps overemphasis, upon the court’s view of “overwhelming evidence.” We prefer the approach of this Court in deciding what was harmless error in our recent case of Fahy v. Connecticut, 375 U.S. 85. There we said: “The question is whether there is a reasonable possibility that the evidence complained of might have contributed to the conviction.”… Although our prior cases have indicated that there are some constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error, this statement in Fahy itself belies any belief that all trial errors which violate the Constitution automatically call for reversal. At the same time, however, like the federal harmless-error statute, it emphasizes an intention not to treat as harmless those constitutional errors that “affect substantial rights” of a party. An error in admitting plainly relevant evidence which possibly influenced the jury adversely to a litigant cannot, under Fahy, be conceived of as harmless. Certainly error, constitutional error, in illegally admitting highly prejudicial evidence or comments, casts on someone other than the person prejudiced by it a burden to show that it was harmless. It is for that reason that the original common-law harmless-error rule put the burden on the beneficiary of the error either to prove that there was no injury or to suffer a reversal of his erroneously obtained judgment. There is little, if any, difference between our statement in Fahy v. Connecticut about “whether there is a reasonable possibility that the evidence complained of might have contributed to the conviction” and requiring the beneficiary of a constitutional error to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained. We, therefore, do no more than adhere to the meaning of our Fahy case when we hold, as we now do, that before a federal constitutional error can be held harmless, the court must be able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. While appellate courts do not ordinarily have the original task of applying such a test, it is a familiar standard to all courts, and we believe its adoption will provide a more workable standard, although achieving the same result as that aimed at in our Fahy case.




            Applying the foregoing standard, we have no doubt that the error in these cases was not harmless to petitioners. To reach this conclusion one need only glance at the prosecutorial comments compiled from the record by petitioners’ counsel and (with minor omissions) set forth in the Appendix. The California Supreme Court fairly summarized the extent of these comments as follows:


            “Such comments went to the motives for the procurement and handling of guns purchased by Mrs. Chapman, funds or the lack thereof in Mr. Teale’s possession immediately prior to the killing, the amount of intoxicating liquors consumed by defendants at the Spot Club and other taverns, the circumstances of the shooting in the automobile and the removal of the victim’s body therefrom, who fired the fatal shots, why defendants used a false registration at a motel shortly after the killing, the meaning of a letter written by Mrs. Chapman several days after the killing, why Teale had a loaded weapon in his possession when apprehended, the meaning of statements made by Teale after his apprehension, why certain clothing and articles of personal property were shipped by defendants to Missouri, what clothing Mrs. Chapman wore at the time of the killing, conflicting statements as to Mrs. Chapman’s whereabouts immediately preceding the killing and, generally, the overall commission of the crime.”…


            Thus, the state prosecutor’s argument and the trial judge’s instruction to the jury continuously and repeatedly impressed the jury that from the failure of petitioners to testify, to all intents and purposes, the inferences from the facts in evidence had to be drawn in favor of the State - in short, that by their silence petitioners had served as irrefutable witnesses against themselves. And though the case in which this occurred presented a reasonably strong “circumstantial web of evidence” against petitioners, … it was also a case in which, absent the constitutionally forbidden comments, honest, fair-minded jurors might very well have brought in not-guilty verdicts. Under these circumstances, it is completely impossible for us to say that the State has demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the prosecutor’s comments and the trial judge’s instruction did not contribute to petitioners’ convictions. Such a machine-gun repetition of a denial of constitutional rights, designed and calculated to make petitioners’ version of the evidence worthless, can no more be considered harmless than the introduction against a defendant of a coerced confession. … Petitioners are entitled to a trial free from the pressure of unconstitutional inferences.


            Reversed and remanded.



Mr. Justice Stewart, concurring in the result.


            In devising a harmless-error rule for violations of federal constitutional rights, both the Court and the dissent proceed as if the question were one of first impression. But in a long line of cases, involving a variety of constitutional claims in both state and federal prosecutions, this Court has steadfastly rejected any notion that constitutional violations might be disregarded on the ground that they were “harmless.” Illustrations of the principle are legion.


            When involuntary confessions have been introduced at trial, the Court has always reversed convictions regardless of other evidence of guilt. …


            When a defendant has been denied counsel at trial, we have refused to consider claims that this constitutional error might have been harmless. …


            A conviction must be reversed if the trial judge’s remuneration is based on a scheme giving him a financial interest in the result, even if no particular prejudice is shown and even if the defendant was clearly guilty. …


            When a jury is instructed in an unconstitutional presumption, the conviction must be overturned, though there was ample evidence apart from the presumption to sustain the verdict. …   Reversal is required when a conviction may have been rested on a constitutionally impermissible ground, despite the fact that there was a valid alternative ground on which the conviction could have been sustained. … In a long line of cases leading up to and including … it has never been suggested that reversal of convictions because of purposeful discrimination in the selection of grand and petit jurors turns on any showing of prejudice to the defendant.


            To be sure, constitutional rights are not fungible goods. The differing values which they represent and protect may make a harmless-error rule appropriate for one type of constitutional error and not for another. I would not foreclose the possibility that a harmless-error rule might appropriately be applied to some constitutional violations. Indeed, one source of my disagreement with the Court’s opinion is its implicit assumption that the same harmless-error rule should apply indiscriminately to all constitutional violations.


            But I see no reason to break with settled precedent in this case, and promulgate a novel rule of harmless error applicable to clear violations of Griffin v. California. … The adoption of any harmless-error rule, whether the one proposed by the Court, or by the dissent, or some other rule, commits this Court to a case-by-case examination to determine the extent to which we think unconstitutional comment on a defendant’s failure to testify influenced the outcome of a particular trial. This burdensome obligation is one that we here are hardly qualified to discharge.


            A rule of automatic reversal would seem best calculated to prevent clear violations of Griffin v. California. …



Mr. Justice Harlan, dissenting.


            The Court today holds that the harmlessness of a trial error in a state criminal prosecution, such error resulting from the allowance of prosecutorial comment barred by the Fourteenth Amendment, must be determined under a “necessary rule” of federal law. The Court imposes a revised version of the standard utilized in Fahy v. Connecticut … on state appellate courts, not because the Constitution requires that particular standard, but because the Court prefers it.


            My understanding of our federal system, and my view of the rationale and function of harmless-error rules and their status under the Fourteenth Amendment, lead me to a very different conclusion. I would hold that a state appellate court’s reasonable application of a constitutionally proper state harmless-error rule to sustain a state conviction constitutes an independent and adequate state ground of judgment. Believing this to be the situation here, I would dismiss the writ. …


            For one who believes that among the constitutional values which contribute to the preservation of our free society none ranks higher than the principles of federalism, and that this Court’s responsibility for keeping such principles intact is no less than its responsibility for maintaining particular constitutional rights, the doctrine announced today is a most disturbing one. It cuts sharply into the finality of state criminal processes; it bids fair to place an unnecessary substantial burden of work on the federal courts; and it opens the door to further excursions by the federal judiciary into state judicial domains. I venture to hope that as time goes on this new doctrine, even in its present manifestation, will be found to have been strictly contained, still more that it will not be pushed to its logical extremes.


            I respectfully dissent.