What is structural error and per se prejudice when it comes to habeas corpus petitions? Find out here.
In performing harmless error analysis of constitutional violations in direct appeal and habeas corpus cases, the United States Supreme Court has long held that, “[s]ome constitutional violations…by their very nature cast so much doubt on the fairness of the trial process that, as a matter of law, they can never be considered harmless.” Satterwhite v. Texas, 486 U.S. 249, 256 (1988); Also, accord Sullivan v Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 279 (1993) (“Although most constitutional errors have been held amenable to harmless error analysis…some will always invalidate the conviction”); Rose v. Clark, 478 U.S. 570, 577-78 (1986)(In addition, “some constitutional errors require reversal without regard to the evidence in the particular case…[because they] render a trial fundamentally unfair”); Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 23 (1967)(“there are some constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error”).
Per Se Prejudice
Then, in Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991), the Court elucidated this rule of per se prejudice or automatic reversal by differentiating between the concepts of “structural” and “trial” error: First, “structural defects in the constitution of the trial mechanism,” 499 U.S. at 309. Then, there are per se prejudicial; trial errors occurring, “during the presentation of the case to the jury,” Id. at 307, are subject to harmless error analysis. Id. at 307-08.
Also, in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), the Supreme Court changed the standard that applies in habeas cases for determining the harmlessness of constitutional “trial” errors. However, the Court did not change, and in fact reaffirmed, its longstanding doctrine treating “structural” errors as not subject to harmless error analysis and accordingly as prejudicial – hence reversible – per se:
Trial error “occur[s] during the presentation of the case to the jury,” and is amenable to harmless-error analysis because it, “may…be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine [the effect it had on the trial].” But, at the other end of the spectrum of constitutional errors lie, “structural defects in the constitution of the trial mechanism, which defy analysis by ‘harmless error’ standards.” Also, the existence of such defects– deprivation of the right to counsel, for example – requires automatic reversal of the conviction because they infect the entire trial process.
In addition, for the foregoing reasons, then, that the Kotteakos harmless error standard applies in determining whether habeas relief must get granted because of constitutional error of the trial type.” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. at 629-30, 638 (quoting Fulminante , 499 U.S. at 307-08, and discussing Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750 (1946)).
Denial of Counsel
In addition, consider that the denial of counsel at a critical stage of the proceedings, of course, constitutes structural error and per se prejudice. See Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. at 279 (“total deprivation of the right to counsel”); see also Delaware v. Van Arsdall , 475 U.S. 673, 681 (1986)(“[W]e have observed that some constitutional errors—such as denying a defendant the assistance of counsel at trial, or compelling him to stand trial before a trier of fact with a financial stake in the outcome—are so fundamental and pervasive that they require reversal without regard to the facts or circumstances of the particular case”).
But ineffective assistance of counsel in some instances can also constitute structural error and per se prejudice. Also decided the same day as Strickland, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Cronic , 466 U.S. 648 (1984), that prejudice is presumed when counsel, “entirely fails to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing.” 466 U.S. at 659. The failure, however, must be “complete.” Bell v. Crone, 535 U.S. 685, 697 (2002). In addition, counsel must be found to have provided virtually “no representation at all…” Moss v. Hofbauer, 286 F.3d 851, 861 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1092 (2002).
Also consider that Connecticut cases that discuss or find structural error and per se prejudice are State v. Ralph B., 163 Conn. App. 583, 601 -06 (2016); Davis v. Commissioner, 319 Conn. 548 (2015); State v. Brown, 279 Conn. 493, 509-10 (2006), and State v. Lopez, 271 Conn. 224, 226-38 (2004).
Finally, if you have additional questions about your case, you can contact an attorney.