Court Curbs Death Penalty Reversals Based on Trial Error
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court made it more difficult yesterday for federal courts to reverse a state death row inmate's sentence because of a constitutional error, emphasizing that the "social costs of retrial and resentencing are significant."
By a 5 to 4 vote, the justices imposed strict standards on federal judges as they weigh whether a trial error in a condemned inmate's case clearly and substantially affected the jury's verdict against the prisoner. The ruling comes at a time when the number of executions has been on the rise. Since the high court in 1976 reinstated capital punishment nationwide, there have been more than 500 executions.
The decision in the case of a California murderer also reflects the contemporary court's desire to streamline the death penalty appeals process and diminish the role of federal judges in hearing protracted state appeals.
Yesterday's opinion was unsigned but it was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, who said the majority was requiring too much precision from lower courts in their explanations of why a trial error substantially affected the verdict.
The case began when Russell Coleman was convicted of the 1979 rape and murder of Shirley Hill. At his sentencing, the judge told the jurors that the governor had the power to commute a sentence of life without possibility of parole to a lesser sentence, but the judge also said they were not to consider the governor's commutation authority in deciding whether Coleman got death or life in prison.
The jury, however, was not told that under the California constitution, the governor may not reduce the sentence of someone with multiple felony convictions, which Coleman had, without approval of four state Supreme Court justices. The jury sentenced Coleman to death.
A federal judge threw out the sentence, saying the jury instruction was inaccurate and and misleading, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
"A commutation instruction is unconstitutional when it is inaccurate," the appeals court said, adding that the jury could have believed that "Coleman could be effectively isolated from the community only through a sentence of death."
California argued that although the instruction was incomplete, it was not a serious error that rose to a 1993 high court standard for federal court reversal of state verdicts.
Yesterday, the high court said that even if the jury instruction did not meet constitutional standards, the 9th Circuit did not follow the framework of that 1993 ruling to show that "in the whole context" of a case, the error had "a substantial and injurious" effect on the verdict.
"The state is not to be put to this arduous task based on mere speculation that the defendant was prejudiced by trial error," the majority said. "The court must find that the defendant was actually prejudiced by the error."
Justice Stevens, writing for the dissent in Calderon v. Coleman, said, "There might have been a slight flaw in the court of appeals' brief explanation of why the invalid instruction given to the jury was not harmless, but . . . the court's ruling was unquestionably correct."
Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, predicted that federal judges would find it hard to apply the standard of yesterday's case when they are reviewing what happened at a trial.
Regarding jury instructions, he added, "In life or death cases, the jury needs to know what its options are. If you give them part of the truth, they are likely to make mistakes."
© 1998 The Washington Post Company