United States v. Frady
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456 U.S. 152 (1982)
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U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152 (1982)
United States v. Frady
Argued December 8, 1981
Decided April 5, 1982
456 U.S. 152
In 1963, respondent was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by a jury in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, which at that time had exclusive jurisdiction over local felonies committed in the District. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which then acted as the local appellate court, upheld the conviction but set aside the death sentence, and respondent was then resentenced to a life term. Respondent filed the present motion in the District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (the latest in a long series of collateral attacks on his sentence), seeking to vacate the sentence on the ground that he was convicted by a jury erroneously instructed on the meaning of malice, thus allegedly eliminating any possibility of a manslaughter verdict. The District Court denied the motion because respondent failed to challenge the instructions on direct appeal or in prior motions. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the proper standard to apply to respondent's claim was the "plain error" standard of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) governing relief on direct appeal from errors not objected to at trial, and, finding the challenged instruction plainly erroneous, vacated respondent's sentence and remanded the case for a new trial or entry of a manslaughter judgment.
1. This Court has jurisdiction to review the decision below and is not required to refrain from doing so on the alleged ground that the decision of the Court of Appeals was based on an adequate and independent local ground of decision. There is no basis for concluding that the ruling below was or should have been grounded on local District of Columbia law, rather than on the general federal law applied to all § 2255 motions. Equal protection principles do not require that a § 2255 motion by a prisoner convicted in 1963 be treated as though it were a motion under the District of Columbia Code after 1970. Pp. 456 U. S. 159-162.
2. The Court of Appeals' use of Rule 52(b)'s "plain error" standard to review respondent's § 2255 motion was contrary to long-established law. Because it was intended for use on direct appeal, such standard is out of place when a prisoner launches a collateral attack against a conviction after society's legitimate interest in the finality of the judgment has been
perfected by the expiration of time allowed for direct review or by the affirmance of the conviction on appeal. To obtain collateral relief, a prisoner must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal. Pp. 456 U. S. 162-166.
3. The proper standard for review of respondent's conviction is the "cause and actual prejudice" standard, under which, to obtain collateral relief based on trial errors to which no contemporaneous objection was made, a convicted defendant must show both "cause" excusing his double procedural default and "actual prejudice" resulting from the errors of which he complains. Pp. 456 U. S. 167-169.
4. Respondent has fallen far short of meeting his burden of showing not merely that the errors at his trial created a possibility of prejudice, but that they worked to his actual and substantial disadvantage, infecting his entire trial with error of constitutional dimensions. The strong uncontradicted evidence of malice in the record, coupled with respondent's utter failure to come forward with a colorable claim that he acted without malice, disposes of his contention that he suffered such actual prejudice that reversal of his conviction 19 years later could be justified. Moreover, an examination of the jury instructions shows no substantial likelihood that the same jury that found respondent guilty of first-degree murder would have concluded, if only the malice instructions had been better framed, that his crime was only manslaughter. Pp. 456 U. S. 169-175.
204 U.S.App.D.C. 234, 636 F.2d 506, reversed and remanded.
O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 456 U. S. 175. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 456 U. S. 175. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 456 U. S. 178. BURGER, C.J., and MARSHALL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.