Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Supreme Court lowers the review bar on federal habeas for denial of defense claims.

In Fry v. Pliler, (a link to the complete decision is set forth below), the United States Supreme Court redefined the rules that are going to be applied on federal habeas (2254) when the defendant claims that the state trial court denied him the right to present certain evidence.

In Fry, the defendant claimed that the trial court denied him the right to present the testimony of a witness who would have testified to certain statements made by a third party that suggested that he, the third party, was the actual perpetrator of the crime.

The defendant got convicted and appealed to the California Court of Appeal. The California Court of appeal affirmed the conviction, but did not specify whether the court analyzed the error under the Chapman "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" standard or the Brecht "substantial and injurious effect standard."

The United States Supreme Court held that a federal court must examine the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state court criminal trial under Brecht's standard, whether or not the state reviewing courts analyzed the error for harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California.

What does all this mean? It means that if a defense attorney is denied the right to present certain evidence in a state court trial, that defense attorney can and should cite this case as the proper standard that federal habeas courts will use to examine the trial court's rulings.

Federal constitutional errors in state court trials are always going to be reviewed on federal habeas to determine if that error resulted in a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the verdict, rather than if the error was harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard is "less onerous" for defendants than the Chapman standard.

The Chapman standard still applies on Supreme Court DIRECT review of state criminal convictions.

Link to decision:

See how Mr. Venie can help you at his website:


Chip Venie is a private criminal defense attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is admitted to practice before state and federal courts in New Mexico, California, Washington, D.C., and Michigan. Mr. Venie graduated from The University of Virginia School of Law and clerked as a staff Attorney to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. Mr. Venie has litigated over 700 trial level felony matters and over 150 appeals. Mr. Venie can be reached at (505) 766-9000 or 619) 235-8300, or