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GREER v. MILLER

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: June 26, 1987.

GREER, WARDEN
v.
MILLER

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT.

Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, O'Connor, and Scalia, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 767. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall and Blackmun, JJ., joined, post, p. 769.

Author: Powell

[ 483 U.S. Page 758]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question before us is whether a prosecutor's question at trial concerning a criminal defendant's post-arrest silence requires reversal of the defendant's conviction.

I

In 1980, Neil Gorsuch was kidnaped, robbed, and murdered after leaving a bar in Jacksonville, Illinois. Three men were charged with the crimes: Randy Williams, Clarence Armstrong, and the respondent, Charles Miller. Williams confessed, and later entered into a plea agreement under which most of the charges against him were dropped in return for his testimony at the separate trials of Armstrong and Miller.

At Miller's trial, Williams testified that he, his brother, and Armstrong had met Gorsuch in a tavern on the evening of February 8. Armstrong offered the victim a ride back to his hotel, and the four men left together at about 1:30 a.m. After Williams' brother was dropped off, Armstrong began beating Gorsuch in the back seat of the car. According to Williams' testimony, the group stopped briefly at Williams' parents' home to pick up a shotgun, and the men then drove to the trailer home where Miller was staying. Williams testified that Miller joined the group, and that they then traveled to a bridge on an isolated road. Williams stated that once there each of the three men shot Gorsuch in the head with the shotgun.

Respondent Miller took the stand on his own behalf and told a different story. On direct examination he testified that he had taken no part in the crime, but that Armstrong and Williams had come to the trailer home after the murder was committed seeking Miller's advice. Miller testified that Armstrong confessed that he and Williams had beaten and robbed Gorsuch, and that they had killed him to avoid being identified as the perpetrators.

[ 483 U.S. Page 759]

     The prosecutor began his cross-examination of Miller as follows:

"Q: Mr. Miller, how old are you?

"A: 23.

"Q: Why didn't you tell this story to anybody when you got arrested?" App. 31.

Defense counsel immediately objected. Out of the hearing of the jury, Miller's lawyer requested a mistrial on the ground that the prosecutor's question violated Miller's right to remain silent after arrest. The trial judge denied the motion, but immediately sustained the objection and instructed the jury to "ignore [the] question, for the time being." Id., at 32. The prosecutor did not pursue the issue further, nor did he mention it during his closing argument. At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence, defense counsel did not renew his objection or request an instruction concerning the prosecutor's question. Moreover, the judge specifically instructed the jury to "disregard questions . . . to which objections were sustained." Id., at 47. Miller was convicted of murder, aggravated kidnaping, and robbery, and sentenced to 80 years in prison.

On appeal the State argued that if the prosecutor's question about Miller's post-arrest silence was prohibited by this Court's decision in Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976), the error was harmless under the standards of Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967).*fn1 The Illinois Appellate Court rejected the argument and reversed the conviction, concluding that the evidence against Miller "was not so overwhelming as to preclude all reasonable doubts about the effect of the prosecutor's comment." State v. Miller, 104 Ill. App. 3d 57, 61, 432 N. E. 2d 650, 653-654 (4th Dist. 1982). The

[ 483 U.S. Page 760]

     Supreme Court of Illinois disagreed and reinstated the trial court's decision. State v. Miller, 96 Ill. 2d 385, 450 N. E. 2d 322 (1983). The court noted that the prosecutor's question was an isolated comment made in the course of a lengthy trial, that the jury had been instructed to disregard the question, and that the evidence properly admitted was sufficient to establish Miller's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Id., at 396, 450 N. E. 2d, at 327. It therefore held that the error did not require reversal of the conviction.

Miller then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court for the Central District of Illinois. The District Court denied the petition, finding "no possibility that the prosecutor's questioning on post-arrest silence could have contributed to the conviction." App. to Pet. for Cert. C-3. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court's decision, United States ex rel. Miller v. Greer, 772 F.2d 293 (1985), as did the full court on reargument en banc. United States ex rel. Miller v. Greer, 789 F.2d 438 (1986). The en banc court found that because Miller had received Miranda*fn2 warnings at the time of his arrest for the offenses in question, "the prosecutor's reference to Miller's silence at the time of his arrest . . . violated his constitutional right to a fair trial." 789 F.2d, at 442. The court further held that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California, supra, because "the evidence against Miller was not overwhelming, his story was not implausible, and the trial court's cautionary instruction was insufficient to cure the error." 789 F.2d, at 447. Three judges dissented, concluding that under the harmless-error standard, "this fifteen-second colloquy, alleviated by the trial judge's immediately sustaining the defendant's objection and instructing the jury to ignore the prosecutor's improper question and by a threshold jury instruction to disregard questions to which objections were sustained, did not affect the verdict." Id., at 448

[ 483 U.S. Page 761]

     (Cummings, J., joined by Wood and Coffey, JJ., dissenting) (footnotes omitted; record reference omitted). Judge Easterbrook also dissented. In his view, the harmless-error standard of Chapman is too stringent to be applied to this case for a number of reasons: the rule of Doyle is prophylactic rather than innocence-protecting; the issue is presented on collateral, rather than on direct, review; the error in this case could have been cured more fully had defense counsel so requested at trial; and the violation should be viewed as prosecutorial misconduct that requires reversal only if it rendered the trial fundamentally unfair. 789 F.2d, at 448-457.

We granted certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' determination that the prosecutor's question about the criminal defendant's post-arrest silence requires reversal of the conviction in this case. 479 U.S. 983 (1986).*fn3 We disagree with the Court of Appeals and now reverse.

II

The starting point of our analysis is Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976). The petitioners in Doyle were arrested for selling marijuana. They were given Miranda warnings and made no post-arrest statements about their involvement in the crime. They contended at trial that they had been

[ 483 U.S. Page 762]

     framed by the government informant. As part of his cross-examination, the prosecutor repeatedly asked petitioners why, if they were innocent, they did not give the explanation that they proffered at their separate trials to the police at the time of their arrest.*fn4 Defense counsel's timely objections to this line of questioning were overruled. Also over timely objections, the trial court allowed the prosecutor to argue petitioners' post-arrest silence to the jury. 426 U.S., at 613-615, and n. 5. On review, this Court found that the Miranda decision "compel[led] rejection" of the contention that such questioning and argument are proper means of impeachment. 426 U.S., at 617. The Court noted that post-arrest silence may not be particularly probative of guilt. We also found that because Miranda warnings contain an implicit assurance "that silence will carry no penalty," 426 U.S., at 618, "'it does not comport with due process to permit the prosecution during the trial to call attention to [the defendant's] silence at the time of arrest and to insist that because

[ 483 U.S. Page 763]

     he did not speak about the facts of the case at that time, as he was told he need not do, an unfavorable inference might be drawn as to the truth of his trial testimony,'" id., at 619 (quoting United States v. Hale, 422 U.S. 171, 182-183 (1975) (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment)). Accordingly, the Court in Doyle held that "the use for impeachment purposes of petitioners' silence, at the time of arrest and after receiving Miranda warnings, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." 426 U.S., at 619.

This Court has applied the holding of Doyle in a number of subsequent cases. These later holdings confirm that " Doyle rests on 'the fundamental unfairness of implicitly assuring a suspect that his silence will not be used against him and then using his silence to impeach an explanation subsequently offered at trial.'" Wainwright v. Greenfield, 474 U.S. 284, 291 (1986) (quoting South Dakota v. Neville, 459 U.S. 553, 565 (1983)). Thus, "absen[t] the sort of affirmative assurances embodied in the Miranda warnings," the Constitution does not prohibit the use of a defendant's post-arrest silence to impeach him at trial. Fletcher v. Weir, 455 U.S. 603, 607 (1982). See Jenkins v. Anderson, 447 U.S. 231, 240 (1980) ("No governmental action induced [the defendant] to remain silent before arrest") (emphasis added); Anderson v. Charles, 447 U.S. 404, 408 (1980) (cross-examination respecting inconsistent post-arrest statements "makes no unfair use of silence, because a defendant who voluntarily speaks after receiving Miranda warnings has not been induced to remain silent").

There is no question that Miller received the "implicit assurance" of Miranda warnings in this case. Thus, this prerequisite of a Doyle violation was met. But the holding of Doyle is that the Due Process Clause bars " the use for impeachment purposes" of a defendant's post-arrest silence. 426 U.S., at 619 (emphasis added). The Court noted that "'it does not comport with due process to permit the prosecution during trial to call attention to [the defendant's] silence.'"

[ 483 U.S. Page 764]

     submitted to the jury as evidence from which it was allowed to draw any permissible inference, and thus no Doyle violation occurred in this case.*fn6

III

Although the prosecutor's question did not constitute a Doyle violation, the fact remains that the prosecutor attempted to violate the rule of Doyle by asking an improper question in the presence of the jury. This Court has recognized that prosecutorial misconduct may "so infec[t] the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process." Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 643 (1974). To constitute a due process violation, the prosecutorial misconduct must be "'of sufficient significance to result in the denial of the defendant's right to a fair trial.'" United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 676 (1985) (quoting United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 108 (1976)).

The Illinois Supreme Court, applying the analysis of Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), found that the prosecutor's question was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. 96 Ill. 2d, at 396, 450 N. E. 2d, at 327. We thus are convinced that it would find no due process violation under the facts of this case.*fn7 When a defendant contends that a prosecutor's

[ 483 U.S. Page 766]

     question rendered his trial fundamentally unfair, it is important "as an initial matter to place th[e] remar[k] in context." Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 179 (1986). See Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, supra, at 639 (determining whether "remarks, in the context of the entire trial, were sufficiently prejudicial to violate respondent's due process rights"). The sequence of events in this case -- a single question, an immediate objection, and two curative instructions*fn8 -- clearly indicates that the prosecutor's improper question did not violate Miller's due process rights. The Illinois Supreme Court's determination that the properly admitted

[ 483 U.S. Page 767]

     evidence at trial "was sufficient to prove defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," 96 Ill. 2d, at 396, 450 N. E. 2d, at 327, further supports this result.*fn9

IV

We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Disposition

789 F.2d 438, reversed and remanded.

JUSTICE STEVENS, concurring in the judgment.

Having dissented in Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610, 620-635 (1976), I can readily understand why the Court might want to overrule that case. But if there is to be a rule that prohibits a prosecutor's use of a defendant's post- Miranda silence, it should be a clearly defined rule. Whether the trial court sustains an objection to an impermissible question, or whether the prosecutor is allowed to refer to the defendant's silence in his or her closing arguments, are questions that are relevant to the harmless-error inquiry, or to deciding whether the error made the trial fundamentally unfair. But they play no role in deciding whether a prosecutor violated the implicit promise of Miranda -- as understood in Doyle -- that the defendant's silence will not be used against him.

I, therefore, agree with the 10 Illinois judges and 12 federal judges who have concluded that the rule of the Doyle case was violated when the prosecutor called the jury's attention to respondent's silence. Moreover, for the reasons stated by the Court of Appeals, I think the violation was serious enough to support that court's conclusion that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. United States ex rel. Miller v. Greer, 789 F.2d 438, 445-447 (CA7 1986) (en banc). Were this case here on direct appeal, therefore, I would vote to reverse the conviction.

[ 483 U.S. Page 768]

     Nonetheless, I concur in the Court's judgment because I believe the question presented in the certiorari petition -- whether a federal court should apply a different standard in reviewing Doyle errors in a habeas corpus action -- should be answered in the affirmative. In Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509 (1982), I argued that there are at least four types of alleged constitutional errors.

"The one most frequently encountered is a claim that attaches a constitutional label to a set of facts that does not disclose a violation of any constitutional right. . . . The second class includes constitutional violations that are not of sufficient import in a particular case to justify reversal even on direct appeal, when the evidence is still fresh and a fair retrial could be promptly conducted. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 22; Harrington v. California, 395 U.S. 250, 254. A third category includes errors that are important enough to require reversal on direct appeal but do not reveal the kind of fundamental unfairness to the accused that will support a collateral attack on a final judgment. See, e. g., Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465. The fourth category includes those errors that are so fundamental that they infect the validity of the underlying judgment itself, or the integrity of the process by which that judgment was obtained." Id., at 543-544 (dissenting opinion) (footnote omitted).

In my view, Doyle violations which cannot be deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt typically fall within the third of these categories. On direct review, a conviction should be reversed if a defendant can demonstrate that a Doyle error occurred at trial, and the State cannot demonstrate that it is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. But, in typical collateral attacks, such as today's, Doyle errors are not so fundamentally unfair that convictions must be reversed whenever the State cannot bear the heavy burden of proving that

[ 483 U.S. Page 769]

     the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, there may be extraordinary cases in which the Doyle error is so egregious, or is combined with other errors or incidents of prosecutorial misconduct, that the integrity of the process is called into question. In such an event, habeas corpus relief should be afforded.*fn*

In sum, although I agree with the Court's judgment, and the standard that it applies here, I would apply this standard only to Doyle violations being considered on collateral review. On direct appeal, a Doyle error should give rise to reversal of the conviction unless the State can prove that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN join, dissenting.

Today the Court holds that a prosecutor may comment on a defendant's post-arrest silence in an attempt to impeach his credibility without thereby violating the rule of Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976). The Court arrives at this surprising conclusion only by confusing the question whether a Doyle violation occurred with the question whether that violation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The holding is remarkable not only because it radically departs from the settled practice of the lower courts, but also because it is founded on a point conceded below and not raised here.

Until today, the common understanding of "our opinion in Doyle v. Ohio. . . [was that it] shields from comment by a prosecutor a defendant's silence after receiving Miranda warnings." Wainwright v. Greenfield, 474 U.S. 284, 296 (1986) (REHNQUIST, J., concurring in result) (emphasis

[ 483 U.S. Page 770]

     added). Accordingly, a defendant has been able to establish a Doyle violation simply by showing that the prosecutor "'call[ed] attention to'" the defendant's post-arrest silence. Doyle, supra, at 619 (citation omitted). "The standard is strict; virtually any description of a defendant's silence following arrest and a Miranda warning will constitute a Doyle violation." United States v. Shaw, 701 F.2d 367, 382 (CA5 1983); see, e. g., Passman v. Blackburn, 797 F.2d 1335, 1346 (CA5 1986) (citing Shaw); United States v. Rosenthal, 793 F.2d 1214, 1243 (CA11 1986) (same); United States v. Elkins, 774 F.2d 530, 537 (CA1 1985) (Doyle is "strictly applied so that any description of defendant's silence following arrest and Miranda warning . . . constitutes a violation of the Due Process Clause"); Webb v. Blackburn, 773 F.2d 646, 648 (CA5 1985) (" Doyle. . . proclaimed a general rule that the prosecution cannot comment on an accused's post-arrest silence"); United States v. Remigio, 767 F.2d 730, 734 (CA10 1985) ("This Circuit has consistently held that comments by prosecutors on an accused's silence were plain, fundamental error") (citations omitted). In light of this authority and the prosecutor's "clear-cut" attempt to use the defendant's post-arrest silence to impeach his credibility, United States ex rel. Miller v. Greer, 789 F.2d 438, 447 (CA7 1986), it is not surprising that the five other courts that examined this case found a Doyle violation.

[ 483 U.S. Page 771]

     To support its decision that no Doyle violation occurred in this case, the Court argues in effect that a single comment cannot be sufficient to constitute a Doyle violation. A single comment, the Court suggests, does not amount to the "use" of a defendant's silence for impeachment purposes, and is not equivalent to an "inquiry or argument respecting the defendant's post- Miranda silence." Ante, at 764. What the Court overlooks, however, is the fact that a single comment is all the prosecutor needs to notify the jury that the defendant did not "tell his story" promptly after his arrest. Although silence at the time of arrest is "insolubly ambiguous" and may be "consistent with . . . an exculpatory explanation," Doyle, Page 771} supra, at 617, 618, and n. 8, nevertheless "the jury is likely to draw" a "strong negative inference" from the fact of a defendant's post-arrest silence. United States v. Hale, 422 U.S. 171, 180 (1975). Thus, as the lower courts have consistently found, a prosecutor may in a single comment effectively use a defendant's post-arrest silence to impeach his or her credibility. See, e. g., United States v. Remigio, supra, at 734-735.

The Court also notes that the trial court sustained defendant's objection to the prosecutor's improper question, and that the court later instructed the jury to disregard all questions to which an objection had been sustained. These actions minimized the harm this particular comment might have caused, the Court implies, and also distinguish this case from previous cases in which this Court has applied Doyle. Ante, at 764. In the case on which Doyle was squarely based, however, the Court reversed a conviction because of improper questioning regarding post- Miranda silence even though the jury was immediately instructed to disregard that questioning. See United States v. Hale, supra, at 175, n. 3. Moreover, the lower courts have routinely addressed similar situations, and in no case in which the prosecutor has commented on the defendant's silence have these courts found contemporaneous objections or curative instructions sufficient automatically to preclude finding a Doyle violation. Instead, the Courts of Appeals have examined the comment in context, and considered it along with the weight of the evidence against the defendant and the importance of the defendant's credibility to the defense, in determining whether a Doyle violation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.*fn1 "In no case has a prompt and forceful instruction alone been held sufficient to vitiate the use of post-arrest silence." Morgan v. Hall, 569 F.2d 1161, 1167-1168 (CA1 1978) (emphasis

[ 483 U.S. Page 772]

     added) (citing cases); see also United States v. Elkins, supra, at 534 (instruction that defendant's silence is not evidence of guilt is not enough to cure Doyle violations); United States v. Remigio, supra, at 735 (finding "no merit" in Government's argument that timely objection and cautionary instruction were enough to cure single comment by prosecutor in violation of Doyle); United States v. Johnson, 558 F.2d 1225, 1230 (CA5 1977) ("Though the trial court instructed the jury not to consider that remark, the testimony was so prejudicial that a simple instruction cannot cure it").

The approach taken by the lower courts reflects both the serious impact of Doyle violations on the fairness of a trial, and the inherent difficulty in undoing the harm that they cause. With respect to their impact, more than one Circuit has recognized that " Doyle violations are rarely harmless." Williams v. Zahradnick, 632 F.2d 353, 364 (CA4 1980) (citing practice in the Fifth Circuit with approval). This is because "questions of guilt and credibility [are often] inextricably bound together," Morgan v. Hall, supra, at 1168, and because comments upon a defendant's failure to tell his or her story promptly after arrest may significantly undermine the defendant's credibility in the jury's eyes. This case illustrates the potential for harm. The only testimony the State offered that linked the defendant to the crime was that of an alleged accomplice. Jurors often give accomplice testimony reduced weight, particularly when the accomplice has received in return a promise of significant leniency.*fn2 Here the State's case depended entirely on whether the jury believed the defendant or the alleged accomplice. The prosecutor's

[ 483 U.S. Page 773]

     second question on cross-examination -- "Why didn't you tell this story to anybody when you got arrested?" -- thus struck directly at the heart of Miller's defense: his credibility. If the rationale of Doyle is to have any force, defendants must be protected from such tactics.

Lower courts have also recognized that once the prosecutor calls attention to the defendant's silence, the resultant harm is not easily cured. First, the jury is made aware of the fact of post-arrest silence, and a foundation is laid for subsequent, more subtle attacks.*fn3 Second, "curative" instructions themselves call attention to defendant's silence, and may in some cases serve to exacerbate the harm. In a related context, involving a prosecutor's statement calling attention to the defendant's decision not to testify at trial, JUSTICE STEVENS has argued that "it is unrealistic to assume that instructions on the right to silence always have a benign effect." Lakeside v. Oregon, 435 U.S. 333, 347 (1978) (dissenting opinion).

"For the judge or prosecutor to call [the defendant's failure to testify] to the jury's attention has an undeniably adverse effect on the defendant. Even if jurors try

[ 483 U.S. Page 774]

     faithfully to obey their instructions, the connection between silence and guilt is often too direct and too natural to be resisted. When the jurors have in fact overlooked it, telling them to ignore the defendant's silence is like telling them not to think of a white bear." Id., at 345.

Justice Simon of the Illinois Supreme Court has elaborated on this point:

"An improper inquiry by the prosecutor concerning the defendant's post-arrest silence is not automatically remedied by a cautionary instruction. . . . If [it were], the prosecutor would have little incentive to avoid such inquiries on cross-examination of the defendant; he could safely inform the jury of the defendant's post-arrest silence, risking only an objection by the defendant's counsel and a cautionary instruction by the trial court. A cautionary instruction is at best only a partial remedy. . . . The instruction may confuse the jury; or the jury may disregard it and use the defendant's silence against him anyway. In a close case like this one, based wholly upon accomplice testimony and circumstantial evidence, the reference to post-arrest silence can work extreme prejudice against the defendant, notwithstanding a cautionary instruction." People v. Miller, 96 Ill. 2d 385, 398, 450 N. E. 2d 322, 328 (1983) (dissenting opinion).

Courts below have therefore considered prompt objections and curative instructions relevant to the question whether a comment on a defendant's silence is harmless error, but irrelevant to the question whether the comment violates Doyle. The Court today confuses the two inquiries, and thereby eliminates much of the protection afforded by Doyle.

Today's radical departure from established practice is particularly inappropriate because this ground for decision was not presented either to the courts below or to this Court. The State "concede[d]" in the Court of Appeals that "any comment referring to [defendant's] silence after that arrest

[ 483 U.S. Page 775]

     [for murder] would be improper." 789 F.2d, at 442.*fn4 It sought review in this Court not of the question whether a Doyle violation occurred, but whether, assuming the existence of a Doyle violation, the standard for appellate review should be more lenient than harmless error.*fn5 The question decided today was therefore not "fairly included in the question presented for review." Ante, at 761, n. 3. Moreover, the Court's contention, ibid., that this question was argued in the briefs appears to me simply mistaken.*fn6 The Court has overturned the judgment below, and upset the settled practice of the lower courts, on a point which the State conceded below and did not raise here, and on which respondent has had no opportunity to be heard.

Today's decision saps Doyle of much of its vitality. I would adhere to Doyle 's principles, and to the established practice of the lower courts. I dissent.

Counsel FOOTNOTES

* Leon Friedman, Vivian O. Berger, and Harvey Grossman filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al. as amicus curiae urging affirmance.


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