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Before a federal constitutional error can be held harmless, the court must be able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Petitioners, Ruth Elizabeth Chapman and Thomas LeRoy Teale, were convicted in a California state court upon a charge that they robbed, kidnaped, and murdered a bartender. She was sentenced to life imprisonment and he to death. At the time of the trial, Art. I, § 13, of the State's Constitution provided that "in any criminal case, whether the defendant testifies or not, his failure to explain or to deny by his testimony any evidence or facts in the case against him may be commented upon by the court and by counsel, and may be considered by the court or the jury." Both Chapman and Teale in this case chose not to testify at their trial, and the State's attorney prosecuting them took full advantage of his right under the State Constitution to comment upon their failure to testify, filling his argument to the jury from beginning to end with numerous references to their silence and inferences of their guilt resulting therefrom. The trial court also charged the jury that it could draw adverse inferences from petitioners' failure to testify. Shortly after the trial, but before Chapman’s and Teale’s cases had been considered on appeal by the California Supreme Court, Wyoming Supreme Court decided Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, in which it held California's constitutional provision and practice invalid on the ground that they put a penalty on the exercise of a person's right not to be compelled to be a witness against himself, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and made applicable to California and the other States by the Fourteenth Amendment. On appeal, the State Supreme Court, 63 Cal. 2d 178, 404 P. 2d 209, admitting that petitioners had been denied a federal constitutional right by the comments on their silence, nevertheless affirmed, applying the State Constitution's harmless-error provision, which forbids reversal unless "the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice."
Was the error harmless in this case?
Reversing the appeal court affirmance of the convictions, the Supreme Court held that the "machine-gun repetition of a denial of the constitutional rights, designed and calculated to make petitioners' version of the evidence worthless," was not harmless error. In determining what constituted harmless error, the Court asked whether there was a reasonable possibility that the evidence complained of might have contributed to the conviction. The Court found that the prosecutors' tactics had affected substantial rights of petitioners. Therefore, the Court overturned the convictions and remanded the case for a trial free from the pressure of unconstitutional inferences.