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DONNELLY v. DECHRISTOFORO

decided: May 13, 1974.

DONNELLY
v.
DECHRISTOFORO



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT.

Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Stewart, White, Blackmun, and Powell, JJ., joined. Stewart, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which White, J., joined, post, p. 648. Douglas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in Part II of which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 648.

Author: Rehnquist

[ 416 U.S. Page 638]

 MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent was tried before a jury in Massachusetts Superior Court and convicted of first-degree murder.*fn1 The jury recommended that the death penalty not be imposed, and respondent was sentenced to life imprisonment. He appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts contending, inter alia, that certain of the prosecutor's remarks during closing argument deprived him of his constitutional right to a fair trial. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.*fn2 That court acknowledged that the prosecutor had made improper remarks, but determined that they were not so prejudicial as to require reversal.

Respondent then sought habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

[ 416 U.S. Page 639]

     The District Court denied relief, stating: "The prosecutor's arguments were not so prejudicial as to deprive [DeChristoforo] of his constitutional right to a fair trial."*fn3 The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed by a divided vote.*fn4 The majority held that the prosecutor's remarks deliberately conveyed the false impression that respondent had unsuccessfully sought to plead to a lesser charge and that this conduct was a denial of due process. We granted certiorari, 414 U.S. 974 (1973), to consider whether such remarks, in the context of the entire trial, were sufficiently prejudicial to violate respondent's due process rights. We hold they were not and so reverse.

I

Respondent and two companions were indicted for the first-degree murder of Joseph Lanzi, a passenger in the car in which the defendants were riding. Police had stopped the car at approximately 4 a. m. on April 18, 1967, and had discovered Lanzi's dead body along with two firearms, one of which had been fired. A second gun, also recently fired, was found a short distance away. Respondent and one companion avoided apprehension at that time, but the third defendant was taken into custody. He later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Respondent and the other defendant, Gagliardi, were finally captured and tried jointly. The prosecutor made little claim that respondent fired any shots but argued that he willingly assisted in the killing. Respondent, on the other hand, maintained that he was an innocent passenger. At the close of the evidence but before final argument, Gagliardi elected to plead guilty to a charge of second-degree murder. The court advised the jury that

[ 416 U.S. Page 640]

     Gagliardi had pleaded guilty and that respondent's trial would continue.*fn5 Respondent did not seek an instruction that the jury was to draw no inference from the plea, and no such instruction was given.

Respondent's claims of constitutional error focus on two remarks made by the prosecutor during the course of his rather lengthy closing argument to the jury. The first involved the expression of a personal opinion as to guilt,*fn6 perhaps offered to rebut a somewhat personalized argument by respondent's counsel. The majority of the Court of Appeals agreed with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that this remark was improper, but declined to rest its holding of a violation of due process on that remark.*fn7 It turned to a second remark that it deemed "more serious."

The prosecutor's second challenged comment was directed at respondent's motives in standing trial: "They [the respondent and his counsel] said they hope that you find him not guilty. I quite frankly think that they hope that you find him guilty of something a little less than first-degree murder."*fn8 Respondent's counsel objected immediately to the statement and later sought an instruction that the remark was improper and should

[ 416 U.S. Page 641]

     be disregarded.*fn9 The court then gave the following instruction:

"Closing arguments are not evidence for your consideration. . . .

"Now in his closing, the District Attorney, I noted, made a statement: 'I don't know what they want you to do by way of a verdict. They said they hope that you find him not guilty. I quite frankly think that they hope that you find him guilty of something a little less than first-degree murder.' There is no evidence of that whatsoever, of course, you are instructed to disregard that statement made by the District Attorney.

"Consider the case as though no such statement was made."*fn10

The majority of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, though again not disputing that the remark was improper, held that it was not so prejudicial as to require a mistrial and further stated that the trial judge's instruction "was sufficient to safeguard the defendant's rights."*fn11 Despite this decision and the District Court's denial of a writ of habeas corpus, the Court of Appeals found that the comment was potentially so misleading and prejudicial that it deprived respondent of a constitutionally fair trial.

[ 416 U.S. Page 642]

     The Court of Appeals reasoned that the jury would be naturally curious about respondent's failure to plead guilty and that this curiosity would be heightened by Gagliardi's decision to plead guilty at the close of the evidence. In this context, the court thought, the prosecutor's comment that respondent hoped for conviction on a lesser offense would suggest to the jury that respondent had sought to plead guilty but had been refused. Since the prosecutor was in a position to know such facts, the jury may well have surmised that respondent had already admitted guilt in an attempt to secure reduced charges. This, said the Court of Appeals, is the inverse of, but a parallel to, intentional suppression of favorable evidence. The prosecutor had deliberately misled the jury, and even if the statement was made thoughtlessly, "in a first degree murder case there must be some duty on a prosecutor to be thoughtful."*fn12 Therefore, the District Court had erred in denying respondent's petition.

II

The Court of Appeals in this case noted, as petitioner urged, that its review was "the narrow one of due process, and not the broad exercise of supervisory power that [it] would possess in regard to [its] own trial court."*fn13 We regard this observation as important for not every trial error or infirmity which might call for application of supervisory powers correspondingly constitutes a "failure to observe that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice." Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, ...


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