Greer v. Miller
Decided on June 26, 1987; 483 US 756


A. Issues Discussed: Due Process Clause

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a prosecutor's question at trial concerning a criminal defendant's post-arrest silence require reversal of the defendant's conviction?


A. Background:

"In 1980, Neil Gorsuch was kidnaped, robbed, and murdered after leaving a bar in Jacksonville, Illinois. Three men were charged with the crimes: Randy Williams, Clarence Armstrong, and the respondent, Charles Miller. Williams confessed, and later entered into a plea agreement under which most of the charges against him were dropped in return for his testimony at the separate trials of Armstrong and Miller.

At Miller's trial, Williams testified that he, his brother, and Armstrong had met Gorsuch in a tavern on the evening of February 8. Armstrong offered the victim a ride back to his hotel, and the four men left together at about 1:30 a.m. After Williams' brother was dropped off, Armstrong began beating Gorsuch in the back seat of the car. According to Williams' testimony, the group stopped briefly at Williams' parents' home to pick up a shotgun, and the men then drove to the trailer home where Miller was staying. Williams testified that Miller joined the group, and that they then traveled to a bridge on an isolated road. Williams stated that once there each of the three men shot Gorsuch in the head with the shotgun.

Respondent Miller took the stand on his own behalf and told a different story. On direct examination he testified that he had taken no part in the crime, but that Armstrong and Williams had come to the trailer home after the murder was committed seeking Miller's advice. Miller testified that Armstrong confessed that he and Williams had beaten and robbed Gorsuch, and that they had killed him to avoid being identified as the perpetrators.

The prosecutor began his cross-examination of Miller as follows:

'Q: Mr. Miller, how old are you?

'A: 23.

'Q: Why didn't you tell this story to anybody when you got arrested?'

Defense counsel immediately objected. Out of the hearing of the jury, Miller's lawyer requested a mistrial on the ground that the prosecutor's question violated Miller's right to remain silent after arrest. The trial judge denied the motion, but immediately sustained the objection and instructed the jury to 'ignore [the] question, for the time being.' The prosecutor did not pursue the issue further, nor did he mention it during his closing argument. At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence, defense counsel did not renew his objection or request an instruction concerning the prosecutor's question. Moreover, the judge specifically instructed the jury to 'disregard questions... to which objections were sustained.' Miller was convicted of murder, aggravated kidnaping, and robbery, and sentenced to 80 years in prison.

On appeal the State argued that if the prosecutor's question about Miller's postarrest silence was prohibited by this Court's decision in Doyle v. Ohio, the error was harmless under the standards of Chapman v. California. The Illinois Appellate Court rejected the argument and reversed the conviction, concluding that the evidence against Miller 'was not so overwhelming as to preclude all reasonable doubts about the effect of the prosecutor's comment.' The Supreme Court of Illinois disagreed and reinstated the trial court's decision....

Miller then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court for the Central District of Illinois. The District Court denied the petition, finding 'no possibility that the prosecutor's questioning on post-arrest silence could have contributed to the conviction.' A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court's decision as did the full court on reargument en banc."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging affirmance by Leon Friedman, Vivian O. Berger, and Harvey Grossman filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al.

Gary R. Peterson argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Daniel D. Yuhas.

Mark L. Rotert, Assistant Attorney General of Illinois, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Neil F. Hartigan, Attorney General, Roma J. Stewart, Solicitor General, and David E. Bindi, Assistant Attorney General.

"The starting point of our analysis is Doyle v. Ohio.... The Court noted that post-arrest silence may not be particularly probative of guilt. We also found that because Miranda warnings contain an implicit assurance 'that silence will carry no penalty,' '`it does not comport with due process to permit the prosecution during the trial to call attention to [the defendant's] silence at the time of arrest and to insist that because he did not speak about the facts of the case at that time, as he was told he need not do, an unfavorable inference might be drawn as to the truth of his trial testimony.'... Accordingly, the Court in Doyle held that 'the use for impeachment purposes of petitioners' silence, at the time of arrest and after receiving Miranda warnings, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.'...

There is no question that Miller received the 'implicit assurance' of Miranda warnings in this case. Thus, this prerequisite of a Doyle violation was met. But the holding of Doyle is that the Due Process Clause bars 'the use for impeachment purposes' of a defendant's postarrest silence....

...[T]he trial court in this case did not permit the inquiry that Doyle forbids. Instead, the court explicitly sustained an objection to the only question that touched upon Miller's postarrest silence. No further questioning or argument with respect to Miller's silence occurred, and the court specifically advised the jury that it should disregard any questions to which an objection was sustained....

The sequence of events in this case - a single question, an immediate objection, and two curative instructions - clearly indicates that the prosecutor's improper question did not violate Miller's due process rights. The Illinois Supreme Court's determination that the properly admitted evidence at trial 'was sufficient to prove defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,' further supports this result."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals' judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.