No Right to ‘Perfect’ Trial, Justices Hold

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Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, stressing that there is no constitutional right to a “perfect” trial, ruled Monday that improperly denying a defendant the right to adequately cross-examine a prosecution witness does not always mean a conviction must be reversed.

In a 7-2 decision, the justices overturned a Delaware court ruling that said reversal must be automatic in such circumstances. The high court said that, although restrictions on cross-examination in this case violated the right to confront an accuser, the conviction may stand if the error did not affect the verdict.

‘Harmless’ Errors

“The Constitution entitles a criminal defendant to a fair trial, not a perfect one,” Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court. “ . . . An otherwise valid conviction should not be set aside if the reviewing court may confidently say, on the whole record, that the constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”


The well-established “harmless error” doctrine, Rehnquist noted, recognizes that the central purpose of a trial is to determine guilt or innocence--focusing on the overall fairness of the trial “rather than on the virtually inevitable presence of immaterial error.”

In other action, the justices:

--Let stand an appeals court ruling upholding a subpoena that required the lawyer for racketeering case defendant Anthony Colombo to testify before a federal grand jury investigating Colombo’s alleged role in organized crime.

The increasing use of such subpoenas has been under widespread attack by defense lawyers, who say it undermines the confidential relationship between attorney and client. By one count, 400 such subpoenas have been issued in recent months.

A grand jury in New York had issued a subpoena to attorney Barry I. Slotnick, asking for his records of fees and other financial transactions involving 20 alleged associates of Colombo. Federal authorities sought the information in an effort to show that Colombo, as a mob boss, had paid Slotnick to represent other members of the gang.

Facing Murder Charges

The 40-year old Colombo, eldest son of reputed crime chieftain Joseph Colombo, is to go on trial with 25 others on May 27, under a 71-count indictment charging murder, extortion, robbery, drug trafficking and other crimes (Roe vs. U.S., 85-1334).

--Refused to hear an appeal contending that Los Angeles County firefighter-hiring practices instituted in 1979 discriminated against black and Latino applicants.


In a brief order, the justices left intact a ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that rejected a challenge to the hiring procedures filed by attorneys representing unsuccessful minority-member applicants. The appeals court held that, although the county’s written exam may have had some adverse effect on minority members, the plaintiffs had failed to show that the test was not sufficiently related to the requirements of the job.

Senior Deputy County Counsel Halvor S. Nelom said that the action (Clady vs. County of Los Angeles, 85-1364) appeared to bring a long legal fight to a close. “We’ve proven our good faith and commitment to minority recruitment,” he said.

Walter Cochran-Bond, a lawyer representing the minority-member applicants, said that the county “has come about half way” in achieving racially balanced hiring ratios. Hiring procedures still will be monitored and, “if they warrant another lawsuit, it will be brought,” he said.

In the Delaware case, a trial judge prevented the attorney for murder suspect Robert Van Arsdall from questioning a prosecution witness about a drunkenness charge against the witness that was dropped in return for his testimony. Van Arsdall was convicted and the defense appealed, contending that it should have been allowed to cross-examine the witness to show that his testimony was biased.

Conviction Reversed

The Delaware Supreme Court agreed, saying that the limit on the right to confront the witness was so serious that it warranted automatic reversal of Van Arsdall’s conviction. Delaware authorities, supported by the Reagan Administration, brought the case (Delaware vs. Van Arsdall, 84-1279) to the justices.

The Supreme Court agreed that there had been a constitutional violation but sent the case back to the Delaware courts to determine whether the prohibited testimony could have affected the verdict.


Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented, saying that the importance of cross-examination in a criminal case is so great that its denial is grounds for automatic reversal of a conviction. Justice John Paul Stevens also dissented, contending that the justices should have let the issue be decided under Delaware law in state courts.