UNITED STATES V. HASTING, 461 U. S. 499 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Hasting, 461 U.S. 499 (1983)

United States v. Hasting

No. 81-1463

Argued December 7, 1982

Decided May 23, 1983

461 U.S. 499


At respondents' trial in Federal District Court on charges of kidnaping, transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, and conspiracy to commit such offenses, the victims' testimony included recitals concerning multiple incidents of rape and sodomy by respondents. The defense relied on a theory of consent and -- inconsistently -- on the possibility that the victims' identification of respondents was mistaken. None of the respondents testified. During the prosecutor's summation to the jury, defense counsel objected when the prosecutor began to comment on the defense evidence, particularly that respondents never challenged the kidnaping, the interstate transportation of the victims, and the sexual acts. A motion for a mistrial was denied, and the jury returned a guilty verdict as to each respondent on all counts. The Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and remanded for retrial, concluding that the summation violated respondents' Fifth Amendment rights under Griffin v. California, 380 U. S. 609. The court declined to rely on the harmless error doctrine, stating that application of the doctrine "would impermissibly compromise the clear constitutional violation of the defendants' Fifth Amendment rights."


1. The Court of Appeals erred in reversing the convictions apparently on the basis that it had the supervisory power to discipline prosecutors for continuing violations of Griffin, supra, regardless of whether the prosecutor's arguments constituted harmless error. Pp. 461 U. S. 504-509.

(a) The goals that are implicated by supervisory powers -- implementing a remedy for violation of recognized rights, preserving judicial integrity by ensuring that a conviction rests on appropriate considerations before the jury, and deterring illegal conduct -- are not significant in the context of this case if the errors alleged are harmless. Reversals of convictions under a court's supervisory power must be approached with some caution and with a view toward balancing the interests involved. Pp. 461 U. S. 505-507.

(b) Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18, held that a Griffin error is not per se error requiring automatic reversal, and that a conviction should be affirmed if the reviewing court concludes that, on the whole record, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the reviewing court's duty to consider the trial record as a whole and to ignore

Page 461 U. S. 500

errors that are harmless, including most constitutional violations. Here, the Court of Appeals' analysis, in making passing reference to the harmless error doctrine but not applying it, failed to strike the balance between disciplining the prosecutor on the one hand and the interest in the prompt administration of justice and the victims' interests in not being subjected to the burdens of another trial on the other. Pp. 461 U. S. 507-509.

2. On the whole record, the error identified by the Court of Appeals was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. This Court has the authority to review records to evaluate a harmless error claim, and the pertinent question here is whether, absent the prosecutor's allusion to the failure of the defense to proffer evidence to rebut the victims' testimony, it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have returned a guilty verdict. The victims' testimony negated any doubt as to identification, and neutral witnesses corroborated critical aspects of the victims' testimony, thus establishing a compelling case of guilt. On the other hand, the scanty evidence tendered by respondents related to their claims of mistaken identity and consent. The patent inconsistency of these defense theories could hardly have escaped the jurors' attention. Pp. 461 U. S. 510-512.

660 F.2d 301, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a separate statement, post, p. 461 U. S. 512. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 461 U. S. 512. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 461 U. S. 519.

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