Harmless Error Doctrine Defined And Discussed

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The Harmless Error Doctrine
Definition: an error made by a court may be subject to the harmless error doctrine of Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967).
If the error is of constitutional magnitude, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless.  Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 681 (1986).
When the error is constitutional in nature and implicates a "structural" right so basic to a fair trial that, by definition, it can never be harmless, the error is deemed harmful per se.  Chapman, 386 U.S. at 23 & n.8.

See Due Process, Peremptory Challenges And The Harmless Error Doctrine: Rivera v. Illinois and The Challenge Of The Harmless Error Doctrine

A Chicago Law Journal stated, "We tested the implications of the model against legal doctrines governing reversible and nonreversible error of criminal convictions and on a sample of more than 1,000 criminal defendants who appealed their convictions in the U.S. courts of appeals between 1996 and 1998. Among the more important theoretical and empirical findings of the paper are the following. Intentional prosecutor and judge errors are more likely to be found harmful and lead the appellate court to reverse the defendant's conviction than are inadvertent errors.

  • Prosecutor errors are more likely to be forgiven than judge errors, in part because judge errors are likely to have greater influence on jurors.
  • Errors are less likely to be harmful when defendants face a higher error-free probability of conviction and
  • appellate courts are more likely to publish an opinion when they are reversing the lower court"


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