483 U. S. 756
June 26, 1987
While on trial for murder with two other defendants, Charles Miller testified that he had not been a part of the murder, but was merely told about it afterward. The prosecutor asked why Miller had never made this claim prior to trial. This question was overruled by the judge, because under Doyle v. Ohio, post-Miranda silence cannot be used against a defendant at trial. After conviction, Miller argued that the prosecutor’s question was a non-harmless Doyle violation that required overturning the trial verdict.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that no Doyle violation had occurred, and that regardless, the prosecutor’s question was harmless error. Powell said that Doyle violations only occurred when questioning silence was allowed, not when it was immediately overruled and never mentioned again. While asking the question was improper, it was only a few seconds in an extensive trial, and the Illinois Supreme Court had concluded that it did not constitute harmful error. Following their lead, Powell held that the prosecutor’s error was harmless.
Stevens said that commenting on post–Miranda silence is still a Doyle violation, even if immediately overruled by a judge. He also thought this error was not harmless. But because the case was before the Court on collateral, rather than direct review, Stevens thought the Court should refrain from voiding the conviction. Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, railed at length about how harmful even a brief and overruled question about silence could be to a defendant’s case. He concluded that a Doyle violation had clearly occurred. Strangely, Brennan didn’t even address the harmless error issue (it was the last day of the term – my guess is that he simply ran out of time).
The majority got it right. We shouldn’t be making mountains out of molehills. Voiding a conviction over an overruled five second question is asinine. But what most struck me about the case was how terrible the Stevens concurrence is. Whether a conviction stands or not shouldn’t depend on the arcane direct v. collateral distinction! If a conviction shouldn’t have happened, it shouldn’t stand – period.