Habeas Review – Inadmissible Evidence – Harmless Error
Error in jury exposure, during deliberations, to inadmissible police report deemed harmless where the report contained merely cumulative information, the trial court gave a curative instruction, and the evidence against Brown was overwhelming.
The standard on direct appeal for measuring reversible error is the familiar Chapman test, whether the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Such a conclusion is subject to deferential review in federal court, Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 (2003) (per curiam) (federal court may not award habeas relief under § 2254 unless the harmlessness determination itself was unreasonable). But what happens when the state court shirks its duty to apply Chapman (as the Illinois appellate court did in Brown’s direct appeal)? In that instance, the federal court on habeas review applies the test set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637-38 (1993) (here, whether jury exposure to the inadmissible police report had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the verdict). See generally, Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112 (2007) With that background in mind, here are the larger recurrent principles as recited in Brown:
The initial question on federal review of a habeas petition is whether the state court decision involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. 42 U.S.C. § 2254(d). However, if the state court never conducted the harmless error analysis or otherwise applied Chapman unreasonably, the federal court must make an independent decision as if the state court never addressed the subject at all. Johnson v. Acevedo, 572 F.3d 398, 404 (7th Cir. 2009). Hence, here, the Brecht standard is appropriate in determining whether the error was harmless. Id.
Where a federal judge in a habeas proceeding is “in grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had ‘substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict,’ that error is not harmless.” O’Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436, 115 S. Ct. 992, 130 L. Ed. 2d 947 (1995). However, in the habeas context, “trial errors are often found harmless where the record is replete with overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.” Whitman v. Bartow, 434 F.3d 968, 971 (7th Cir. 2006). In addition, erroneously admitted evidence, if cumulative, is also harmless error. See Hinton v. Uchtman, 395 F.3d 810, 821 (7th Cir. 2005) (citing Brecht, 507 U.S. at 639, 113 S. Ct. 1710).