O'Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432 (1995)

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

No. 93-7407. Argued October 31, 1994—Decided February 21, 1995

In proceedings on Robert O'Neal's federal habeas corpus petition challenging his state-court convictions for murder and other crimes, the Sixth Circuit assumed that O'Neal had established constitutional "trial" error with regard to one of the jury instructions, but disregarded that error on the ground that it was "harmless." After setting forth the harmlessness standard normally used by federal habeas courts—whether the error had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict," see, e. g., Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. 619, 627— the Sixth Circuit stated that the habeas petitioner must bear the "burden of establishing" whether the error was prejudicial under that standard. As a practical matter, the court's burden-of-proof statement apparently means that the petitioner must lose if a reviewing judge is in grave doubt about the effect on the jury of this kind of error, i. e., if, in the judge's mind, the matter is so evenly balanced that he or she feels in virtual equipoise as to the error's harmlessness.

Held: When a federal habeas court finds a constitutional trial error and is in grave doubt about whether the error had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict," the error is not harmless, and the petitioner must win. Pp. 436-445. (a) The foregoing legal conclusion rests upon three considerations. First, it is supported by precedent. See, e. g., Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U. S. 750, 764-765; Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18, 24. Brecht, supra, at 637, and Palmer v. Hoffman, 318 U. S. 109, 116, distinguished. The State's view that appellants' "burden" of showing "prejudice" in civil cases applies to habeas proceedings fails to take into account the stakes involved in a habeas proceeding. Unlike the civil cases cited by the State, the errors being considered by a habeas court occurred in a criminal proceeding, and therefore, although habeas is a civil proceeding, someone's custody, rather than mere civil liability, is at stake. Moreover, precedent suggests that civil and criminal harmless-error standards do not differ in their treatment of grave doubt as to the harmlessness of errors affecting substantial rights. Compare, e. g., Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 52(a) with Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 61. Second, the Court's conclusion is consistent with the basic purposes underlying the writ of habeas corpus. A legal rule requiring issuance of the writ will,

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