OCTOBER TERM, 1999
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit
No. 98-1170. Argued November 1, 1999—Decided March 6, 2000
Respondent was convicted on New York criminal charges after a trial that required the jury to decide whether it believed the testimony of the victim and her friend or the conflicting testimony of respondent. The prosecutor challenged respondent's credibility during summation, calling the jury's attention to the fact that respondent had the opportunity to hear all other witnesses testify and to tailor his own testimony accordingly. The trial court rejected respondent's objection that these comments violated his right to be present at trial. After exhausting his state appeals, respondent filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court claiming, inter alia, that the prosecutor's comments violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to be present at trial and confront his accusers, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The District Court denied his petition, but the Second Circuit reversed.
1. The prosecutor's comments did not violate respondent's Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. The Court declines to extend to such comments the rationale of Griffin v. California, 380 U. S. 609, in which it held that a trial court's instruction about a defendant's refusal to testify unconstitutionally burdened his privilege against self-incrimination. As a threshold matter, respondent's claims find no historical support. Griffin, moreover, is a poor analogue for those claims. Griffin prohibited the prosecution from urging the jury to do something the jury is not permitted to do, and upon request a court must instruct the jury not to count a defendant's silence against him. It is reasonable to expect a jury to comply with such an instruction because inferring guilt from silence is not always "natural or irresistible," id., at 615; but it is natural and irresistible for a jury, in evaluating the relative credibility of a defendant who testifies last, to have in mind and weigh in the balance the fact that he has heard the testimony of those who preceded him. In contrast to the comments in Griffin, which suggested that a defend-ant's silence is "evidence of guilt," ibid., the prosecutor's comments in this case concerned respondent's credibility as a witness. They were therefore in accord with the Court's longstanding rule that when a defendant takes the stand, his credibility may be assailed like that of any
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