Admission of a Coerced Confession Cases
In Arizona v. Fulminante (1991) 499 U.S. 279 111 S. Ct. 1246, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302, a decision holding that the erroneous admission of a coerced confession is not reversible per se, the court elaborated upon harmless error analysis by distinguishing between 'trial errors,' which are subject to the general rule that a constitutional error does not require automatic reversal, and 'structural' errors, which 'defy analysis by harmless-error standards' and require reversal without regard to the strength of the evidence or other circumstances.
Fulminante characterized trial errors as those that occur 'during the presentation of the case to the jury, and which may therefore be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine whether the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.'
Structural errors, on the other hand, are 'structural defects in the constitution of the trial mechanism . . . affecting the framework within which the trial proceeds, rather than simply an error in the trial process itself.'
The court noted examples of trial errors, including erroneous jury instructions citation, as well as structural errors, which include the total deprivation of the right to counsel at trial, a biased judge, unlawful exclusion of members of the defendant's race from a grand jury, denial of the right to self-representation at trial, and denial of the right to a public trial.
With regard to such structural errors, Fulminante explained: ' "Without these basic protections, a criminal trial cannot reliably serve its function as a vehicle for determination of guilt or innocence, and no criminal punishment may be regarded as fundamentally fair." ' " (People v. Flood, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at p. 493.)
As examples of structural error, the United States Supreme Court has noted by way of example that " where the right to a jury trial is altogether denied, the State cannot contend that the deprivation was harmless because the evidence established the defendant's guilt; the error in such a case is that the wrong entity judged the defendant guilty." (Rose v. Clark, supra, 478 U.S. at p. 578 106 S. Ct. at p. 3106.)
Where demonstration of prejudice is " 'a practical impossibility, prejudice must necessarily be implied.' " (Waller v. Georgia (1984) 467 U.S. 39, 49, fn. 9 104 S. Ct. 2210, 2217, 81 L. Ed. 2d 31 denial of right to public trial.)
"Since the right of self-representation is a right that when exercised usually increases the likelihood of a trial outcome unfavorable to the defendant, its denial is not amenable to 'harmless error' analysis.
The right is either respected or denied; its deprivation cannot be harmless." (McKaskle v. Wiggins (1984) 465 U.S. 168, 177, fn. 8 104 S. Ct. 944, 950, 79 L. Ed. 2d 122.)