harmless error

White v. Woodall

Issues: 

Does a trial court’s rejection of a non-testifying defendant’s request for a no-adverse-influence instruction during the sentencing phase of a capital punishment trial violate that defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when the defendant has pled guilty to all of the alleged crimes and aggravating circumstances?

Robert Keith Woodall pled guilty to the murder, rape, and kidnapping of a sixteen-year-old victim. At the penalty phase, Woodall put on fourteen witnesses but did not himself testify. The trial court rejected his request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction regarding his decision not to testify. The jury recommended the death penalty, and the trial court accepted this recommendation. After exhausting state court avenues, Woodall filed for and received habeas corpus relief from a federal district court. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the trial court violated Woodall’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination by rejecting his request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction. In this case, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to consider whether the rejection of a request for a no-adverse-inference at the penalty phase of a trial, even where the defendant has pled guilty to all charged crimes, violates the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This case will impact the rights of criminal defendants charged with capital crimes and will clarify prior Supreme Court precedent. 

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

Robert Keith Woodall, amidst overwhelming evidence of his guilt, pled guilty to kidnapping, raping, and murdering a 16-year-old child, and thus pled guilty to all aggravating circumstances. At the penalty phase trial, the prosecutor elected to present evidence of guilt and the circumstances of the crimes. Woodall did not testify; and his request that the jury be instructed not to draw any adverse inference from his decision not to testify (a "no adverse inference instruction") was denied. He was sentenced to death by a Kentucky jury. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed. 

Even though this Court has never held that a defendant is entitled to a no adverse inference instruction at the sentencing phase of a trial where the defendant has pled guilty to the offense and all aggravating circumstances, the Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief to Woodall on the ground that the trial court's failure to provide such an instruction violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The questions presented are: 

  1. Whether the Sixth Circuit, violated 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1) by granting habeas relief on the trial court's failure to provide a no adverse inference instruction even though this Court has not "clearly established" that such an instruction is required in a capital penalty phase when a non-testifying defendant has pled guilty to the crimes and aggravating circumstances. 
  2. Whether the Sixth Circuit violated the harmless error standard in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), in ruling that the absence of a no adverse inference instruction was not harmless in spite of overwhelming evidence of guilt and in the face of a guilty plea to the crimes and aggravators.

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Facts

A grand jury indicted Respondent Robert Keith Woodall for the murder, kidnapping, and rape of a sixteen-year-old female victim, and Woodall pled guilty in Kentucky state court to all of the charges and aggravating circumstances.

Edited by: 
Acknowledgments: 

The authors would like to thank Professor John H. Blume of Cornell Law School for his insights into this case.

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