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Federalizing Cumulative Error

The Ninth Circuit issued a great opinion today in Parle v. Runnels. It is an appeal from an order of a federal district court granting a petition for a writ of habeas corpus concerning a state court judgment of conviction. The issue presented is whether the California state court's decision affirming the defendant's murder conviction was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The California courts found numerous errors but concluded that those errors did not result in a "serious flaw" in the defendant's trial. Ultimately, the federal district court concluded that the erroneous evidentiary rulings infected the trial with such unfairness that it rose to the level of a due-process violation. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's habeas grant and ruled that the defendant was entitled to a new trial.

"The Supreme Court has clearly established that the combined effect of multiple trial errors violates due process where it renders the resulting criminal trial fundamentally unfair. Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973)" Parle, __ F.3d at __ (also citing Montana v. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37, 53 (1996)). "The cumulative effect of multiple errors can violate due process even where no single error rises to the level of a constitutional violation or would independently warrant reversal." Id. (citing Chambers, 410 U.S. at 290 n.3). "[W]here the combined effect of individually harmless errors renders a criminal defense 'far less persuasive than it might [otherwise have been,' the resulting conviction violates due process." Id. at __ (quoting Chambers, 410 U.S. at 294, 302, 303) (alteration in Parle).

Other nice quotes from the opinion include the following:
"Where a trial court commits an evidentiary error, the error is not necessarily rendered harmless by the fact there was other, cumulative evidence properly admitted." Id. at __ (citing Krulewitch v. United States, 336 U.S. 440 (1949) (holding that, in a close case, erroneously admitted evidence -- even if cumulative of other evidence -- can 'tip the scales' against the defendant) and Hawkins v. United States, 358 U.S. 74, 80 (1954)(concluding that erroneously admitted evidence, 'though in part cumulative,' may have 'tipped the scales against the petitioner on the close and vital issue of his state of mind").

The opinion is well worth reading and should be cited as supporting a federal constitutional due process claim, along with the US Supreme Court cases that were cited in the opinion, in support of state court issues of cumulative error.


Wow. Excellent case. This case has a long and torturous procedural history.

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