Friday, February 11, 2011

Fourth Circuit reverses district court's grant of habeas writ

Bauberger v. Hynes, No. 09-8111 (4th Cir. Feb. 11, 2011):

In Bauberger's murder trial, the jury used a dictionary during deliberations to help define a number of words contained in the judge's malice instruction, but not the definition of "malice" itself.  The district court granted Bauberger's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, holding that the jurors' dictionary use violated Bauberger's clearly established Sixth Amendment rights and that the error prejudiced him because the dictionary's definitions of "recklessly" and "wantonly" may have lowered the government's burden of proof regarding malice.

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by reviewing the appropriate standard by which it reviews a presumed constitutional error.  The Fourth Circuit held that federal habeas courts must always review constitutional errors in state trials under Brecht, but they need not debate whether a state court's harmless error determination also unreasonably applied Chapman

The Fourth Circuit held that the dictionary definitions did not materially alter the meaning of the instruction as a whole, and the government introduced significant evidence of malice.

Judge Keith issued a dissenting opinion, arguing that the dictionary's external influence was impermissibly prejudicial.

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