Certiorari To The District Of Columbia Court Of Appeals

No. 15-1503. Argued March 29, 2017--Decided June 22, 2017 1

Petitioners—Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, Levy Rouse, Kelvin Smith, Charles and Christopher Turner, and Clifton Yarborough—and several others were indicted for the kidnaping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. At trial, the Government advanced the theory that Fuller was attacked by a large group of individuals. Its evidentiary centerpiece consisted of the testimony of Calvin Alston and Harry Bennett, who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated with the Government in return for leniency. Several other Government witnesses corroborated aspects of Alston’s and Bennett’s testimony. Melvin Montgomery testified that he was in a park among a group of people, heard someone say they were “going to get that one,” saw petitioner Overton pointing to Fuller, and saw several persons, including some petitioners, cross the street in her direction. Maurice Thomas testified that he saw the attack, identified some petitioners as participants, and later overheard petitioner Catlett say that they “had to kill her.” Carrie Eleby and Linda Jacobs testified that they heard screams coming from an alley where a “gang of boys” was beating someone near a garage, approached the group, and saw some petitioners participating in the attack. Finally, the Government played a videotape of petitioner Yarborough’s statement to detectives, describing how he was part of a large group that carried out the attack. None of the defendants rebutted the prosecution witnesses’ claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack. The seven petitioners were convicted.

Long after their convictions became final, petitioners discovered that the Government had withheld evidence from the defense at the time of trial. In postconviction proceedings, they argued that seven specific pieces of withheld evidence were both favorable to the defense and material to their guilt under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83. This evidence included the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller’s body had already been found; the statement of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach witnesses Eleby, Jacobs, and Thomas. The D. C. Superior Court rejected petitioners’ Brady claims, finding that the withheld evidence was not material. The D. C. Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The withheld evidence is not material under Brady. Pp. 9–14.

(a) The Government does not contest petitioners’ claim that the withheld evidence was “favorable to the defense.” Petitioners and the Government, however, do contest the materiality of the undisclosed Brady information. Such “evidence is ‘material’ . . . when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Cone v. Bell, 556 U. S. 449–470. “A ‘reasonable probability’ of a different result” is one in which the suppressed evidence “ ‘undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.’ ” Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U. S. 419. To make that determination, this Court “evaluate[s]” the withheld evidence “in the context of the entire record.” United States v. Agurs, 427 U. S. 97. Pp. 9–11.

(b) Petitioners’ main argument is that, had they known about the withheld evidence, they could have challenged the Government’s basic group attack theory by raising an alternative theory, namely, that a single perpetrator (or two at most) had attacked Fuller. Considering the withheld evidence “in the context of the entire record,” Agurs, supra, at 112, that evidence is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.

A group attack was the very cornerstone of the Government’s case, and virtually every witness to the crime agreed that Fuller was killed by a large group of perpetrators. It is not reasonably probable that the withheld evidence could have led to a different result at trial. Petitioners’ problem is that their current alternative theory would have had to persuade the jury that both Alston and Bennett falsely confessed to being active participants in a group attack that never occurred; that Yarborough falsely implicated himself in that group attack and yet gave a highly similar account of how it occurred; that Thomas, an otherwise disinterested witness, wholly fabricated his story; that both Eleby and Jacobs likewise testified to witnessing a group attack that did not occur; and that Montgomery in fact did not see petitioners and others, as a group, identify Fuller as a target and leave together to rob her.

As for the undisclosed impeachment evidence, the record shows that it was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence petitioners already had and used at trial. This is not to suggest that impeachment evidence is immaterial with respect to a witness who has already been impeached with other evidence, see Wearry v. Cain, 577 U. S. ___, ___–___. But in the context of this trial, with respect to these witnesses, the cumulative effect of the withheld evidence is insufficient to undermine confidence in the jury’s verdict, see Smith v. Cain, 565 U. S. 73–76. Pp. 11–14.

116 A. 3d 894, affirmed.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Kagan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined. Gorsuch, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

1 Together with No. 15–1504, Overton v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.


Certiorari To The Supreme Judicial Court Of Massachusetts

No. 16-240. Argued April 19, 2017--Decided June 22, 2017

When petitioner was tried in a Massachusetts trial court, the courtroom could not accommodate all the potential jurors. As a result, for two days of jury selection, an officer of the court excluded from the courtroom any member of the public who was not a potential juror, including petitioner’s mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected to the closure at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. Petitioner was convicted of murder and a related charge. Five years later, he filed a motion for a new trial in state court, arguing, as relevant here, that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the courtroom closure. The trial court ruled that he was not entitled to relief. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed in relevant part. Although it recognized that the violation of the right to public trial was a structural error, it rejected petitioner’s ineffective-assistance claim because he had not shown prejudice.


1. In the context of a public-trial violation during jury selection, where the error is neither preserved nor raised on direct review but is raised later via an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice to secure a new trial. Pp. 5–14.

(a) This case requires an examination of the proper application of the doctrines of structural error and ineffective assistance of counsel. They are intertwined, because the reasons an error is deemed structural may influence the proper standard used to evaluate an ineffective-assistance claim premised on the failure to object to that error. Pp. 5–10.

(1) Generally, a constitutional error that “did not contribute to the verdict obtained” is deemed harmless, which means the defendant is not entitled to reversal. Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18. However, a structural error, which “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U. S. 279, defies harmless error analysis, id., at 309. Thus, when a structural error is objected to and then raised on direct review, the defendant is entitled to relief without any inquiry into harm.

There appear to be at least three broad rationales for finding an error to be structural. One is when the right at issue does not protect the defendant from erroneous conviction but instead protects some other interest—like the defendant’s right to conduct his own defense—where harm is irrelevant to the basis underlying the right. See United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U. S. 140, n. 4. Another is when the error’s effects are simply too hard to measure—e.g., when a defendant is denied the right to select his or her own attorney—making it almost impossible for the government to show that the error was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Chapman, supra, at 24. Finally, some errors always result in fundamental unfairness, e.g., when an indigent defendant is denied an attorney, see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335–345. For purposes of this case, a critical point is that an error can count as structural even if it does not lead to fundamental unfairness in every case. See Gonzalez-Lopez, supra, at 149, n. 4. Pp. 5–7.

(2) While a public-trial violation counts as structural error, it does not always lead to fundamental unfairness. This Court’s opinions teach that courtroom closure is to be avoided, but that there are some circumstances when it is justified. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U. S. 39; Presley v. Georgia, 558 U. S. 209–216. The fact that the public-trial right is subject to exceptions suggests that not every public-trial violation results in fundamental unfairness. Indeed, the Court has said that a public-trial violation is structural because of the “difficulty of assessing the effect of the error.” Gonzalez-Lopez, supra, at 149, n. 4. The public-trial right also furthers interests other than protecting the defendant against unjust conviction, including the rights of the press and of the public at large. See, e.g., Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., Riverside Cty., 464 U. S. 501–510. Thus, an unlawful closure could take place and yet the trial will still be fundamentally fair from the defendant’s standpoint. Pp. 7–10.

(b) The proper remedy for addressing the violation of the right to a public trial depends on when the objection was raised. If an objection is made at trial and the issue is raised on direct appeal, the defendant generally is entitled to “automatic reversal” regardless of the error’s actual “effect on the outcome.” Neder v. United States, 527 U. S. 1. If, however, the defendant does not preserve a structural error on direct review but raises it later in the context of an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant generally bears the burden to show deficient performance and that the attorney’s error “prejudiced the defense.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668. To demonstrate prejudice in most cases, the defendant must show “a reasonable probability that . . . the result of the proceeding would have been different” but for attorney error. Id., at 694. For the analytical purposes of this case, the Court will assume, as petitioner has requested, that even if there is no showing of a reasonable probability of a different outcome, relief still must be granted if the defendant shows that attorney errors rendered the trial fundamentally unfair.

Not every public-trial violation will lead to a fundamentally unfair trial. And the failure to object to that violation does not always deprive the defendant of a reasonable probability of a different outcome. Thus, a defendant raising a public-trial violation via an ineffective-assistance claim must show either a reasonable probability of a different outcome in his or her case or, as assumed here, that the particular violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair.

Neither this reasoning nor the holding here calls into question the Court’s precedents deeming certain errors structural and requiring reversal because of fundamental unfairness, see Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U. S., at 278–279; Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U. S. 510; Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U. S., at 261–264, or those granting automatic relief to defendants who prevailed on claims of race or gender discrimination in jury selection, e.g., Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79. The errors in each of these cases were preserved and then raised on direct appeal. The reason for placing the burden on the petitioner here, however, derives both from the nature of the error and the difference between a public-trial violation preserved and then raised on direct review and a public-trial violation raised as an ineffective-assistance claim.

When a defendant objects to a courtroom closure, the trial court can either order the courtroom opened or explain the reasons for keeping it closed, but when a defendant first raises the closure in an ineffective-assistance claim, the trial court has no chance to cure the violation. The costs and uncertainties of a new trial are also greater because more time will have elapsed in most cases. And the finality interest is more at risk. See Strickland, supra, at 693–694. These differences justify a different standard for evaluating a structural error depending on whether it is raised on direct review or in an ineffective-assistance claim. Pp. 10–14.

2. Because petitioner has not shown a reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel’s failure to object or that counsel’s shortcomings led to a fundamentally unfair trial, he is not entitled to a new trial. Although potential jurors might have behaved differently had petitioner’s family or the public been present, petitioner has offered no evidence suggesting a reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel’s failure to object. He has also failed to demonstrate fundamental unfairness. His mother and her minister were indeed excluded during jury selection. But his trial was not conducted in secret or in a remote place; closure was limited to the jury voir dire; the courtroom remained open during the evidentiary phase of the trial; the closure decision apparently was made by court officers, not the judge; venire members who did not become jurors observed the proceedings; and the record of the proceedings indicates no basis for concern, other than the closure itself. There was no showing, furthermore, that the potential harms flowing from a courtroom closure came to pass in this case, e.g., misbehavior by the prosecutor, judge, or any other party. Thus, even though this case comes here on the assumption that the closure was a Sixth Amendment violation, the violation here did not pervade the whole trial or lead to basic unfairness. Pp. 14–16.

474 Mass. 787, 54 N. E. 3d 495, affirmed.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Gorsuch, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Gorsuch, J., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Gorsuch, J., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kagan, J., joined.


Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Sixth Circuit

No. 16-309. Argued April 26, 2017--Decided June 22, 2017

Petitioner Divna Maslenjak is an ethnic Serb who resided in Bosnia during the 1990’s, when a civil war divided the new country. In 1998, she and her family sought refugee status in the United States. Interviewed under oath, Maslenjak explained that the family feared persecution from both sides of the national rift: Muslims would mistreat them because of their ethnicity, and Serbs would abuse them because Maslenjak’s husband had evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army by absconding to Serbia. Persuaded of the Maslenjaks’ plight, American officials granted them refugee status. Years later, Maslenjak applied for U. S. citizenship. In the application process, she swore that she had never given false information to a government official while applying for an immigration benefit or lied to an official to gain entry into the United States. She was naturalized as a U. S. citizen. But it soon emerged that her professions of honesty were false: Maslenjak had known all along that her husband spent the war years not secreted in Serbia, but serving as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army.

The Government charged Maslenjak with knowingly “procur[ing], contrary to law, [her] naturalization,” in violation of 18 U. S. C. 1425(a). According to the Government’s theory, Maslenjak violated 1425(a) because, in the course of procuring her naturalization, she broke another law: 18 U. S. C. 1015(a), which prohibits knowingly making a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding. The District Court instructed the jury that, to secure a conviction under 1425(a), the Government need not prove that Maslenjak’s false statements were material to, or influenced, the decision to approve her citizenship application. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction, holding that if Maslenjak made false statements violating 1015(a) and procured naturalization, then she also violated 1425(a).


1. The text of 1425(a) makes clear that, to secure a conviction, the Government must establish that the defendant’s illegal act played a role in her acquisition of citizenship. To “procure . . . naturalization” means to obtain it. And the adverbial phrase “contrary to law” specifies how a person must procure naturalization so as to run afoul of the statute: illegally. Thus, someone “procure[s], contrary to law, naturalization” when she obtains citizenship illegally. As ordinary usage demonstrates, the most natural understanding of that phrase is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship. To get citizenship unlawfully is to get it through an unlawful means—and that is just to say that an illegality played some role in its acquisition.

The Government’s contrary view—that 1425(a) requires only a violation in the course of procuring naturalization—falters on the way language naturally works. Suppose that an applicant for citizenship fills out the paperwork in a government office with a knife tucked away in her handbag. She has violated the law against possessing a weapon in a federal building, and she has done so in the course of procuring citizenship, but nobody would say she has “procure[d]” her citizenship “contrary to law.” That is because the violation of law and the acquisition of citizenship in that example are merely coincidental: The one has no causal relation to the other. Although the Government attempts to define such examples out of the statute, that effort falls short for multiple reasons. Most important, the Government’s attempted carve-out does nothing to alter the linguistic understanding that gives force to the examples the Government would exclude. Under ordinary rules of language usage, 1425(a) demands a causal or means-end connection between a legal violation and naturalization.

The broader statutory context reinforces the point, because the Government’s reading would create a profound mismatch between the requirements for naturalization and those for denaturalization: Some legal violations that do not justify denying citizenship would nonetheless justify revoking it later. For example, lies told out of “embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy” (rather than “for the purpose of obtaining [immigration] benefits”) are not generally disqualifying under the statutory requirement of “good moral character.” Kungys v. United States, 485 U. S. 759; 8 U. S. C. 1101(f)(6). But under the Government’s reading of 1425(a), any lie told in the naturalization process would provide a basis for rescinding citizenship. The Government could thus take away on one day what it was required to give the day before. And by so unmooring the revocation of citizenship from its award, the Government opens the door to a world of disquieting consequences—which this Court would need far stronger textual support to believe Congress intended. The statute Congress passed, most naturally read, strips a person of citizenship not when she committed any illegal act during the naturalization process, but only when that act played some role in her naturalization. Pp. 4–9.

2. When the underlying illegality alleged in a 1425(a) prosecution is a false statement to government officials, a jury must decide whether the false statement so altered the naturalization process as to have influenced an award of citizenship. Because the entire naturalization process is set up to provide little room for subjective preferences or personal whims, that inquiry is properly framed in objective terms: To decide whether a defendant acquired citizenship by means of a lie, a jury must evaluate how knowledge of the real facts would have affected a reasonable government official properly applying naturalization law.

If the facts the defendant misrepresented are themselves legally disqualifying for citizenship, the jury can make quick work of that inquiry. In such a case, the defendant’s lie must have played a role in her naturalization. But that is not the only time a jury can find that a defendant’s lies had the requisite bearing on a naturalization decision, because lies can also throw investigators off a trail leading to disqualifying facts. When relying on such an investigation-based theory, the Government must make a two-part showing. Initially, the Government must prove that the misrepresented fact was sufficiently relevant to a naturalization criterion that it would have prompted reasonable officials, “seeking only evidence concerning citizenship qualifications,” to undertake further investigation. Kungys, 485 U. S., at 774, n. 9. If that much is true, the inquiry turns to the prospect that such an investigation would have borne disqualifying fruit. The Government need not show definitively that its investigation would have unearthed a disqualifying fact. It need only establish that the investigation “would predictably have disclosed” some legal disqualification. Id., at 774. If that is so, the defendant’s misrepresentation contributed to the citizenship award in the way 1425(a) requires. This demanding but still practicable causal standard reflects the real-world attributes of cases premised on what an unhindered investigation would have found.

When the Government can make its two-part showing, the defendant may overcome it by establishing that she was qualified for citizenship (even though she misrepresented facts that suggested the opposite). Thus, whatever the Government shows with respect to a thwarted investigation, qualification for citizenship is a complete defense to a prosecution under 1425(a). Pp. 10–15.

3. Measured against this analysis, the jury instructions in this case were in error. The jury needed to find more than an unlawful false statement. However, it was not asked to—and so did not—make any of the necessary determinations. The Government’s assertion that any instructional error was harmless is left for resolution on remand. Pp. 15–16.

821 F. 3d 675, vacated and remanded.

Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Gorsuch, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.