O'Neal v. McAninch, Warden
Decided on Feb. 21, 1995; 513 US 432


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (procedure), Habeas Corpus

B. Legal Question Presented:

Should a federal habeas court consider a trial error harmless when the court (1) reviews a state-court judgment from a criminal trial, (2) finds a constitutional error, and (3) is in grave doubt about whether or not that error is harmless?


A. Background:

Robert O’Neal filed a federal habeas corpus petition challenging his state-court convictions for murder and other crimes. The Federal District Court agreed with several of his claims of constitutional trial error.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit assumed that the jury instruction had indeed violated the United States Constitution by misleading the jury. Nonetheless, the court disregarded the error on the ground that it was “harmless.”

The Sixth Circuit Court stated that the habeas petitioner must bear the “burden of establishing” whether the error was prejudicial under that standard normally used by federal habeas courts, namely whether it had “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”

The US Supreme Court granted ceriorari to the Sixth Circuit Court to decide what the law requires in such circumstances.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Thomas R. Wetterer, Jr., argued the case for the petitioner. With him on the briefs were Gloria Eyerly, Gregory L. Ayers, and John A. Bay Richard A. Cordray, State Solicitor of Ohio, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the briefs were Lee Fisher, Attorney General; Simon B. Karas, and Stuart A. Cole and Timothy J. Mangan, Assistant Attorneys General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Larry W. Yackle, Steven R. Shapiro, and James S. Liebman; and for Timothy Scott Sherman by Andrew L. Frey, Roy T. Englert, Jr., James G. Duncan, and Stuart J. Robinson. James A. Feldman argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Harris, and Deputy Solicitor General Wallace.

A brief of amici curiae urging affirmance was filed for the State of Maryland et al. by J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland; Tarra DeShields-Minnis, Assistant Attorney General; and Eleni M. Constantine, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: James H. Evans of Alabama, Bruce M. Botelho of Alaska, Grant Woods of Arizona, Winston Bryant of Arkansas, Daniel E. Lungren of California, Gale H. Norton of Colorado, John M. Bailey of Connecticut, Charles Oberly of Delaware, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, Michael J. Bowers of Georgia, Robert A. Marks of Hawaii, Larry EchoHawk of Idaho, Roland W. Burris of Illinois, Pamela Carter of Indiana, Bonnie J. Campbell of Iowa, Robert T. Stephan of Kansas, Chris Gorman of Kentucky, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, Michael E. Carpenter of Maine, Scott Harshbarger of Massachusetts, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, Hubert H. Humphrey III of Minnesota, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Jeremiah (Jay) Nixon of Missouri, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, Jeffrey R. Howard of New Hampshire, Deborah T. Poritz of New Jersey, Tom Udall of New Mexico, G. Oliver Koppel of New York, Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, Susan B. Loving of Oklahoma, Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon, Ernest D. Preate, Jr., of Pennsylvania, Pedro R. Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, Jeffrey B. Pine of Rhode Island, T. Travis Medlock of South Carolina, Mark Barnett of South Dakota, Charles Burson of Tennessee, Dan Morales of Texas, Jan Graham of Utah, Jeffrey L. Amestoy of Vermont, Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine of the Virgin Islands, James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, Christine O. Gregoire of Washington, Darrell V. McGraw, Jr. of West Virginia, James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, and Joseph B. Meyer of Wyoming.

“Our legal conclusion - that in cases of grave doubt as to harmlessness the petitioner must win - rests upon three considerations. First, precedent supports our conclusion. As this Court has stated, 'the original common-law harmless error rule put the burden on the beneficiary of the error [here, the State]... to prove that there was no injury...'

Second, our conclusion is consistent with the basic purposes underlying the writ of habeas corpus... protect individuals from unconstitutional convictions and help to guarantee the integrity of the criminal process by assuring that trials are fundamentally fair... [D]enying the writ in cases of grave uncertainty, would virtually guarantee that many, in fact, will be held in unlawful custody - contrary to the writ’s most basic traditions and purposes.

Third, our rule has certain administrative virtues. It is consistent with the way that courts have long treated important trial errors.

The State makes one additional argument. It points to language in the habeas corpus statute… We do not see what in the language of the statute tells a court that it should treat a violation as harmless when it is in grave doubt about its harmlessness...

[W]e conclude that, when a habeas court is in grave doubt as to the harmlessness of an error that affects substantial rights, it should grant relief. For these reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded."
Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con

  • Breyer, S. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined minority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined minority opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Sixth Circuit Court decision in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.