Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 91-7358. Argued December 1, 1992—Decided April 21, 1993

At his first-degree murder trial in Wisconsin state court, petitioner Brecht admitted shooting the victim, but claimed it was an accident. In order to impeach this testimony, the State, inter alia, made several references to the fact that, before he was given his Miranda warnings at an arraignment, Brecht failed to tell anyone with whom he came in contact that the shooting was accidental. The State also made several references to his post-Miranda-warning silence in this regard. The jury returned a guilty verdict and Brecht was sentenced to life in prison, but the State Court of Appeals set the conviction aside on the grounds that the State's references to his post-Miranda silence violated due process under Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U. S. 610, and this error was sufficiently "prejudicial" to require reversal. The State Supreme Court reinstated the conviction, holding that the error was " 'harmless beyond a reasonable doubt' " under the standard set forth in Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18, 24. The Federal District Court disagreed and set aside the conviction on habeas review. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that the proper standard of harmless-error review was that set forth in Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U. S. 750, 776, i. e., whether the Doyle violation " 'had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.' " Applying this standard, the court concluded that Brecht was not entitled to relief.

Held: 1. The Kotteakos harmless-error standard, rather than the Chapman standard, applies in determining whether habeas relief must be granted because of unconstitutional "trial error" such as the Doyle error at issue. Pp. 627-638. (a) The State's references to Brecht's post-Miranda silence violated Doyle. The Doyle rule rests on the Miranda warnings' implicit assurance that a suspect's silence will not be used against him, and on the fundamental unfairness of using postwarning silence to impeach an explanation subsequently offered at trial. It is conceivable that, once Brecht was given his warnings, he decided to stand on his right to remain silent because he believed his silence would not be used against him at trial. The prosecution's references to his pre-Miranda silence


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