Washington Law Review

Comment

Not-So-Harmless Error: A Higher Standard for Mitigation Errors on Capital Habeas Review

June 01, 2014 | 89 Wash. L. Rev. 515

Abstract:  This Comment looks at how federal courts handle mitigation errors during the penalty phase of capital punishment cases on habeas corpus review; it argues that the United States Supreme Court should expressly adopt the Chapman “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt” standard rather than the Brecht “substantial and injurious effect” standard. The heightened stakes of capital sentencing dictate that a higher standard of review should apply. The Court has yet to rule on this matter, and the United States Courts of Appeals cannot agree upon which standard to apply. Currently, a lopsided circuit split exists regarding whether harmless error review applies to mitigation errors, and if so, what standard should apply. While the Court has yet to decide this issue, it has dealt with harmless error review in non-capital cases. The Chapman harmless error standard, promulgated by the Court in 1967, requires that a state must prove that any constitutional errors were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1993, the Brecht Court found the Chapman standard too onerous for collateral attacks and determined that a lower standard was necessary: during collateral attacks, the defendant must show that the error had a substantial and injurious effect upon determining the jury’s verdict. Chapman placed the burden upon the State; Brecht placed the burden upon the defendant. This Comment argues that the higher Chapman standard should apply to collateral attacks in capital habeas cases because of the possibility of a total deprivation of one’s life and liberty. The Court has before determined that “death is different,” and in keeping with that sentiment, the Court should adopt an error standard that similarly acknowledges the difference between life and death.

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