In Williams v. Swarthout the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a conviction, because the judge erroneously stated after swearing in the jury that the defendant pleaded guilty at the beginning of the trial. The defendant had in fact pleaded not guilty hence the ensuing trial. Earlier during voir dire the judge told the prospective jurors that the defendant pleaded not guilty.
The mistake did become clear until the next day when the jurors, after deliberating for one hour, sent the judge a note asking the judge if he had said that the defendant pleaded guilty. The judge reviewed the transcript and admitted the mistake on the record. The prosecution and court reporter had noted the error, but did not say anything. The defense move for a mistrial. The judge summoned the jury and corrected the record. The judge asked the jurors whether they were unable to accept the correction, but the jury was silent. The judge asked if they didn't pay attention because of a mistaken belief that the defendant pleaded guilty. Again the jury was silent. The judge asked a third time if the jurors would be unable to set aside the mistaken statement that the defendant pleaded guilty. The jury was silent. Lastly the judge asked the jurors to raise their hands if they could not provide the defendant with a presumption of innocence, the right to remain silent, and the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but no hands were raised. At this point the judge denied the motion for a mistrial.
A few days later one juror sent a note to the judge admitting that he or she had assumed the defendant pleaded guilty and that the issue was simply whether the evidence supported the plea. The juror was dismissed, but had already told the rest of the jury about the note and its content. The remaining jurors each stated individually that they could disregard the court's misstatement as to the defendants plea. The defendant was convicted of false imprisonment and two CSC counts and was sentenced to at least 50 years in prison.
On appeal to the California Court of Appeals the judgment was affirmed. The California Court of Appeals concluded that an error occurred, but that it was cured and hence harmless. The California Supreme Court denied leave to appeal. The defendant then filed for habeas corpus relief. The federal district court agreed with the California Court of Appeals.
The Ninth Circuit reversed. Federal habeas review is limited by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). Only claims where the state court decision is contrary to or is an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law or where the decision "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d). The Ninth Circuit ruled that in this case it had to defer to the state court's determination as to whether a federal constitutional error occurred. It ruled that the state court held there was an error according to federal law as well as state law.
However, the Ninth Circuit did not agree that the error was harmless. In fact it noted that the misstatement as to the defendant's plea would have completely eliminated the prosecution's burden of proof if it was not corrected. The court ruled that the judge's first instruction did not cure the error as one juror sent a note showing it had not been corrected days after remaining silent when asked if there was an issue. The second correction was also not adequate even though the jury was silent when asked if any issues remained. The court found that the judge had essentially rebuked the juror who sent the note to such an extent that no other juror would want to freely admit in open court that they were not fair and impartial. Hence the error was not harmless and the defendant was entitled to a writ of habeas corpus and a new trial.
There was a dissent in this case which agreed with the California Court of Appeals that the error was fully cured and hence harmless.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion can be found here:
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