- 525 U.S. 141 (1998)
OCTOBER TERM, 1998
CALDERON, WARDEN v. COLEMAN
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 98-437. Decided December 14, 1998
Respondent Coleman was convicted in a California court of, inter alia, murder. At the trial's penalty phase, the judge gave a so-called Briggs instruction, then required by state law, which informed the jury of the Governor's power to commute a life sentence without the possibility of parole to a lesser sentence that might include the possibility of parole. The State Supreme Court affirmed on direct appeal. The Federal District Court granted Coleman's subsequent habeas petition, finding that the Briggs instruction violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because it did not mention a limitation on the Governor's power to commute Coleman's sentence. In affirming, the Ninth Circuit rejected the State's argument that the instruction, even if unconstitutional, did not have a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury's verdict, as required by Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. 619, 637. It applied instead the rule of Boyde v. California, 494 U. S. 370, 380, finding that there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the instruction in a way that prevented it from considering constitutionally relevant evidence.
Held: The Ninth Circuit erred by failing to apply Brecht's harmless-error analysis. Brecht's standard reflects the presumption of finality and legality that attaches to a conviction at the conclusion of direct review. It protects the State's sovereign interest in punishing offenders and its good-faith attempts to honor constitutional rights, while ensuring that the extraordinary remedy of habeas corpus is available to those whom society has grievously wronged. This balance is upset when a federal court sets aside a state-court conviction or sentence without first determining that the error had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury's verdict. The Boyde test is not a harmless-error test at all. It merely asks whether a constitutional error has occurred and does not inquire into the error's actual effect on the jury's verdict.
Certiorari granted; 150 F.3d 1105, reversed and remanded.
After a jury trial in a state court in California, respondent Russell Coleman was convicted of the September 5, 1979,
rape, sodomy, and murder of Shirley Hill. The jury's two special circumstances findings of rape and sodomy made Coleman death-penalty eligible under California law. See People v. Coleman, 46 Cal. 3d 749, 756-757, 759 P. 2d 1260, 1264 (1988).
At the penalty phase of Coleman's trial, the trial judge gave the jury a so-called Briggs instruction, then required by California law, which informed the jury of the Governor's power to commute a sentence of life without possibility of parole to some lesser sentence that might include the possibility of parole. After giving the standard Briggs instruction, the state trial court instructed the jury that it was not to consider the Governor's commutation power in reaching its verdict. Thus, the full jury instruction on commutation was as follows:
"You are instructed that under the State Constitution, a Governor is empowered to grant a reprieve, pardon or commutation of a sentence following conviction of the crime.
"Under this power, a Governor may in the future commute or modify a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to a lesser sentence that would include the possibility of parole.
"So that you will have no misunderstandings relating to a sentence of life without possibility of parole, you have been informed generally as to the Governor's commutation modification power. You are now instructed, however, that the matter of a Governor's commutation power is not to be considered by you in determining the punishment for this defendant.
"You may not speculate as to if or when a Governor would commute the sentence to a lesser one which includes the possibility of parole.
"I instruct you again that you are to consider only those aggravating and mitigating factors which I have already