O’Neal v. McAninch

LOCATION:Spendthrift Farm

DOCKET NO.: 93-7407
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 513 US 432 (1995)
ARGUED: Oct 31, 1994
DECIDED: Feb 21, 1995

James A. Feldman – on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae, supporting the Respondent
Richard A. Cordray – on behalf of the Respondent
Thomas R. Wetterer, Jr. – on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for O’Neal v. McAninch

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 31, 1994 in O’Neal v. McAninch

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 21, 1995 in O’Neal v. McAninch

Stephen G. Breyer:

The second case is Robert O’Neal v. Fred McAninch.

This involves the following situation, a defended is convicted of a crime in a State Court, he comes into a Federal Habeas Court and he claims that there was a constitutional error that infected the trial for example of his conviction.

The Court decides he is right, there was a constitutional error, but still he does not get a new trial if the matter was harmless.

The question presented to us was under those circumstances who has to prove harmlessness or lack of harmlessness?

Is the burden on the defendant to show it was not harmless or is it on the government to show it was harmless?

What we decided is this, normally when you are a Court of Appeals or other court reviewing the transcript of a trial.

The judge should try not to rely upon burdens of proof.

The judge should read the transcript in the record and make up his or her own mind.

In those rare instances where the judge ends up in grave doubt, then we think the burden is on the government to show that there was not harmlessness.

That our reasoning that if that there was harmlessness that the burden is on the government, it shows that the error was harmless.

A reason is basically it’s consistent with prior president, it makes the law uniform and for reasons that we spell out in the opinion it is consistent with the interest of justice.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justice Scalia have joined.