Harmless Error

2012-07-10 18:39:12

During the mid-1800s, England observed the ‘‘exchequer rule’’ of automatic reversal. Under this rule, prejudice was presumed upon discovery of any trial error and a new trial was required whenever error was found. The inevitable result was a plethora of retrials at considerable cost to judicial economy, finality, witnesses, and litigants. During the early 1900s, American jurisdictions adopted harmless error statutes. The 1919 federal statute, which served as a model for many state statutes, required federal appellate courts to ‘‘give judgment after an examination of the entire record before the court, without regard to technical errors, defects, or exceptions which do not affect the substantial rights of the parties.’’ Today every American jurisdiction now employs some version of the ‘‘harmless error’’ rule.

The harmless error doctrine recognizes that not only is no one entitled to a perfect trial, but that perfect trials occur rarely, if ever. Nonetheless, until the mid-1960s, most courts automatically reversed criminal convictions upon a finding that the trial was tainted by constitutional error. Up to that point, appellate courts applied the harmless error rules only to nonconstitutional errors. In 1967, the Supreme Court in Chapman v. California (1967) held that, unless prejudice resulted from the mistake, even constitutional errors do not require reversal. A harmless error is a mistake during judicial proceedings that does not affect the substantial rights of the defendant. The purpose of the harmless error rule is to avoid ‘‘setting aside convictions for small errors or defects that have little, if any likelihood of having changed the result of the trial.’’

By contrast, a plain error is a mistake of constitutional magnitude that compromises a structural right deemed essential to a fair trial. The mere existence of a structural defect in the constitution of the trial mechanism—for example, deprivation of the right to counsel—requires automatic reversal because such an error infects the entire trial process. Other constitutional errors involve ‘‘rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error.’’ These include the right to an impartial judge, and the right to not be coerced into confessing. Other rights that may trigger automatic reversal include the right to a speedy trial, the right to be free from double jeopardy, the right to a representative jury, and the right to a representative grand jury.

The Chapman rule requires the beneficiary of the constitutional error—usually the government—to prove beyond a reasonable doubt ‘‘that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict.’’ Thus, if overwhelming error-free evidence supports the conviction, it will not be reversed.

The ‘‘harmless beyond a reasonable doubt’’ standard set forth in Chapman applies to courts on direct appeal, but does not apply to federal habeas corpus review of constitutional errors committed at trial. Instead, the Supreme Court in Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993), held that federal courts on habeas may not grant relief unless the error ‘‘had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Whitebread, Charles H., and Christopher Slobogin. Criminal Procedure. Mineola, NY: Foundation Press, 2000.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 22 (1967)
  • Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993)