Brecht v. Abrahamson

PETITIONER: Todd A. Brecht
RESPONDENT: Gordon A. Abrahamson, Superintendent, Dodge Correctional Institution
LOCATION: City Council of Hialeah

DOCKET NO.: 91-7358
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 507 US 619 (1993)
ARGUED: Dec 01, 1992
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1993

Allen E. Shoenberger - on behalf of the Petitioner
Sally L. Wellman - on behalf of the Respondent
William P. Barr - on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae supporting the Respondent

Facts of the case

Todd Brecht was charged with murder for shooting his brother-in-law. During his trial, he testified that the shooting was an accident. In addition to presenting other evidence, the prosecution pointed out his silence (both prior to his receiving the Miranda warnings and after) in an attempt to discredit his testimony. Brecht was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Brecht appealed, claiming that the prosecution's reference to his post-Miranda silence violated his right to due process according to Doyle v. Ohio. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, but the Supreme Court of Wisconsin reinstated it. They found that the mention of post-Miranda silence was impermissible under Doyle, but was also harmless error according to the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard from Chapman v. California.

Brecht sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The District Court upheld his Doyle claim and found that the violation was not harmless error under Chapman. Brecht's conviction was thus overturned again, only to be reinstated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit held that Chapman was not the appropriate standard under which to review Doyle error in federal habeas petitions. Rather than adhering to the Chapman standard, the court applied the Kotteakos v. United States test, which requires that the Doyle error have a "substantial and injurious effect" on the jury's verdict. Brecht's Doyle claim did not meet this standard, and the Seventh Circuit denied the writ.


Is the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard from Chapman v. California the appropriate standard for setting aside a conviction on the basis of constitutional error?

Media for Brecht v. Abrahamson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 01, 1992 in Brecht v. Abrahamson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 21, 1993 in Brecht v. Abrahamson

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in Brecht against Abrahamson.

In this case petitioner Todd Brecht was serving time in a Georgia prison when her sister and her husband assumed temporary custody of him and took him back to their home in Alma, Wisconsin.

A week later, Brecht shot and killed his brother-in-law and fled to Winona, Minnesota where he was apprehended by the police.

He was then returned to Wisconsin and tried for murder in the Circuit Court of Buffalo County.

At trial, Brecht took the stand and claimed for the first time that the shooting was an accident.

To impeach his testimony, the state made several references to his post-Miranda warning silence as to the accidental nature of the crime and everybody agrees this was a violation of a case we decided a number of years called Doyle against Ohio.

The jury returned of guilty verdict.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin upheld Brecht's conviction after concluding that the Doyle error was harmless under the standard of harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in the case we decided in Chapman versus California some years ago.

Brecht then went into the Federal Court system and sought federal habeas relief and the Federal District Court in Madison granted relief because it thought this violation that takes place during his trial was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Then the state took the case to the Court of Appeals in the Seventh Circuit and that Court reversed and said that on collateral review after that convictions become final in the State Court system, the proper standard for determining whether the error was harmless is the one set forth in another case we decided called Kotteakos, and the standard here is more lenient than not in the Chapman standard, and applying this standard, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Doyle violation was harmless.

So we are now on the Sixth Court which will consider this case.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we hold that the Kotteakos harmless error standard rather than Chapman standard applies in determining whether constitutional error of this type may provide the basis for federal habeas relief.

In applying that standard, we conclude that Brecht is not entitled to relief so the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Justice Stevens has filed the concurring opinion; Justice White has filed a dissenting opinion, which is joined by Justice Blackmun in its entirety and by Justice Souter in part; Justices Blackmun, O'Connor, and Souter have also filed dissenting opinion.