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GREER v. MILLER

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 ...


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