Satterwhite v. Texas

486 U. S. 249

May 31, 1988

In a case called Estelle v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that it was Constitutional error to allow psychiatric examination of a defendant in a capital case without notifying the defendant’s counsel. John Satterwhite was examined without notification of his counsel. The doctor who examined him testified at trial that Satterwhite was irredeemably dangerous, and he was sentenced to death. The question was whether this violation was harmless error, given that many other witnesses had provided ample evidence of how dangerous and sociopathic Satterwhite was.

The Court ruled unanimously that the error was not harmless (Kennedy did not participate). O’Connor, writing for a five Justice majority, said that violation of Estelle could sometimes be genuinely harmless, because the error only infects a small portion of the trial rather than the whole ordeal. Nonetheless, the harmlessness of the error had to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of the especially impressive and authoritative nature of the doctor’s court testimony, O’Connor was not prepared to conclude that it had not affected the jury’s final decision.

Marshall, joined by Brennan and Blackmun, said that any violation of Estelle should always result in the death sentence being vacated. Because it was usually too difficult to determine whether or not the error was harmless, harmless error analysis should never be undertaken. Furthermore, Estelle itself, and other precedents suggested that harmless error analysis was inappropriate for this particular violation. In a section not joined by Blackmun, Marshall went farther, and contended that absolutely any Constitutional violation in a capital case, even if harmless, must result in the death sentence being overturned. In a separate opinion, Blackmun briefly registered his continuing skepticism of psychiatric testimony in general.

Even though I usually favor upholding death sentences on the basis of harmless error, I must agree with the unanimous Court that this error might not have been harmless. Nevertheless, I’m not at all sure that Estelle was correct in deeming the psychiatric evaluation error in the first place. Certainly, it’s best practices to notify the defendant’s counsel, but to call it a Sixth Amendment violation might go a bit too far.

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