Center for Public Research and Leadership
For the past two and one-half decades, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have applied the same rule for assessing the harmlessness of constitutional error in habeas corpus proceedings as they have applied on direct appeal of both state and federal convictions. Under that rule, which applied to all constitutional errors except those deemed per se prejudicial or per se reversible, the state could avoid reversal upon a finding of error only by proving that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court adopted this stringent standard in Chapman v. California to fulfill the federal courts' responsibility to "protect people from infractions by the States of federally guaranteed rights." Although Chapman itself arose on direct appeal, the Court understood the decision's harmless error rule to be of constitutional magnitude and, consistent with the principle of parity between direct and habeas corpus consideration of constitutional issues in the federal courts, the Court repeatedly and routinely applied the same standard in habeas corpus proceedings. So did the lower federal courts.
James S. Liebman & Randy Hertz,
Brecht v. Abrahamson: Harmful Error in Habeas Corpus Law,
J. Crim. L. & Criminology
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/464