CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.
O'connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Powell, Rehnquist, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 175. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 175. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 178. Burger, C. J., and Marshall, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permits a criminal conviction to be overturned on direct appeal for "plain error" in the jury instructions, even if the defendant
failed to object to the erroneous instructions before the jury retired, as required by Rule 30. In this case we are asked to decide whether the same standard of review applies on a collateral challenge to a criminal conviction brought under 28 U. S. C. § 2255.
Joseph Frady, the respondent, does not dispute that 19 years ago he and Richard Gordon killed Thomas Bennett in the front room of the victim's house in Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, because the resolution of this case depends on what the jury learned about Frady's crime, we must briefly recount what happened, as told by the witnesses at Frady's trial and summarized by the Court of Appeals. See Frady v. United States, 121 U. S. App. D.C. 78, 348 F.2d 84 (en banc) (Frady I), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 909 (1965).
The events leading up to the killing began at about 4:30 p. m. on March 13, 1963, when two women saw Frady drive slowly by Bennett's house in an old car. Later, at about 7:00 p. m., Frady, accompanied by Richard Gordon and Gordon's friend, Elizabeth Ryder, returned to the same block. On this second trip, Ryder overheard Frady say "something about that is the house over there," at which point Frady and Gordon looked in the direction of the victim's house.
After reconnoitering Bennett's home, Frady, Gordon, and Ryder drove across town to a restaurant, where they were joined by George Bennett, Thomas Bennett's brother. At the restaurant Ryder heard George Bennett tell Frady that "he needed time to get the furniture and things settled." She also heard Frady ask Bennett "if he hit a man in the chest, could you break a rib and fracture or puncture a lung, could it kill a person?" Bennett answered that "[you] have to hit a man pretty hard." Just before they left the restaurant, Ryder heard George Bennett say: "If you do a good job you will get a bonus."
Ryder, Gordon, and Frady then set out by car for 11th Place, around the corner from Thomas Bennett's home, where they parked, leaving the motor running. Gordon and Frady told Ryder they were going "just around the corner." As Gordon got out, Ryder saw him reach down and pick up something. She could not see exactly what it was, but it "looked like a cuff of a glove or heavy material of some kind."
A little after 8:30 p. m., a neighbor heard knocking at the front door of Bennett's house, followed by the noise of a fight in progress. At 8:44 p. m., she called the police. Within a couple of minutes, two policemen in a patrol wagon arrived, and one of them got out in time to see Frady and Gordon emerge from Bennett's front door.
Inside Bennett's house, police officers later found a shambles of broken, disordered furniture and blood-spattered walls. Thomas Bennett lay dead in a pool of blood. His neck and chest had suffered horseshoe-shaped wounds from the metal heel plates on Frady's leather boots and his head was caved in by blows from a broken piece of a tabletop, which, significantly, bore no fingerprints. One of Bennett's eyes had been knocked from its socket.
Outside, the policeman on foot heard Frady and Gordon exclaim, "The cops!" as they emerged from the house. They immediately took flight, running around the corner toward their waiting automobile. Both officers pursued, one on foot, the other in the police wagon. As Frady and Gordon ran, one of them threw Thomas Bennett's wallet and a pair of gloves under a parked car. Frady and Gordon managed to reach their waiting automobile and scramble into it without being captured by the officer following on foot, but the patrol wagon arrived in time to block their departure. One of them was then heard to remark, "They've got us." When arrested, Frady and Gordon were covered with their victim's blood. Unlike their victim, however, neither had sustained an injury, apart from a cut on Gordon's forehead.
Although Frady now admits that the evidence that he and Gordon caused Bennett's death was "overwhelming,"*fn1 at his trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Frady defended solely by denying all responsibility for the killing, suggesting through his attorney that another man, the real murderer, had been seen leaving the victim's house while the police were preoccupied apprehending Frady and Gordon. Consistent with this theory, Frady did not raise any justification, excuse, or mitigating circumstance. A jury convicted Frady of first-degree murder and robbery, and sentenced him to death by electrocution.
Sitting en banc, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld Frady's first-degree murder conviction by a vote of 8-1. Frady I, supra. Apparently all nine judges would have affirmed a conviction for second-degree murder.*fn2
Nevertheless, by a vote of 5-4, the court set aside Frady's death sentence. The five judges in the majority were unable to agree on a rationale for that result. Four of the five believed the procedures used to instruct and poll the jury on the death penalty were too ambiguous to sustain a sentence of death.*fn3 The fifth and deciding vote was cast by a judge who
believed the District Court should have adopted, for the first time in the District of Columbia, a procedure bifurcating the guilt and sentencing phases of Frady's trial. 121 U. S. App. D.C., at 85, 348 F.2d, at 91 (McGowan, J., concurring). By this narrow margin, Frady escaped electrocution.
Frady was then resentenced to a life term. Almost immediately, he began a long series of collateral attacks on his sentence,*fn4 culminating in the case now before us.
Frady initiated the present action by filing a motion under 28 U. S. C. § 2255*fn5 seeking the vacation of his sentence because the jury instructions used at his trial in 1963 were defective. Specifically, Frady argued that the Court of Appeals, in cases decided after his trial and appeal, had disapproved instructions identical to those used in his case. As determined by these later rulings,*fn6 the judge at Frady's trial
had improperly equated intent with malice by stating that "a wrongful act . . . intentionally done . . . is therefore done with malice aforethought." See 204 U. S. App. D.C. 234, 236, n. 6, 636 F.2d 506, 508, n. 6 (1980). Also, the trial judge had incorrectly instructed the jury that "the law infers or presumes from the use of such weapon in the absence of explanatory or mitigating circumstances the existence of the malice essential to culpable homicide." See id., at 236, 636 F.2d, at 508. In his § 2255 motion Frady contended that these instructions compelled the jury to presume malice and thereby wrongfully eliminated any possibility of a manslaughter verdict, since manslaughter was defined as culpable homicide without malice.*fn7
The District Court denied Frady's § 2255 motion, stating that Frady should have challenged the jury instructions on direct appeal, or in one of his many earlier motions. The Court of Appeals reversed. The court held that the proper standard to apply to Frady's claim is the "plain error" standard governing relief on direct appeal from errors not objected
to at trial, Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 52(b), rather than the "cause and actual prejudice" standard enunciated in Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72 (1977), Francis v. Henderson, 425 U.S. 536 (1976), and Davis v. United States, 411 U.S. 233 (1973), governing relief on collateral attack following procedural default at trial. Finding the challenged instructions to be plainly erroneous, the court vacated Frady's sentence and remanded the case for a new trial or, more realistically, the entry of a judgment of manslaughter. Over a vigorous dissent, the full Court of Appeals denied the Government a rehearing en banc.
We granted the Government's petition for a writ of certiorari to review whether the Court of Appeals properly invoked the "plain error" standard in considering Frady's belated collateral attack. 453 U.S. 911 (1981).
Before we reach the merits, however, we first must consider an objection Frady makes to our grant of certiorari. Frady argues that we should refrain from reviewing the decision below because the issues presented pertain solely to the local law of the District of Columbia, with which we normally do not interfere.*fn8
Frady's contention is that the federal courts in the District of Columbia exercise a purely local jurisdictional function when they rule on a § 2255 motion brought by a prisoner convicted of a local law offense. Thus, according to Frady, the general federal law controlling the disposition of § 2255 motions does not apply to his case. Instead, a special local brand of § 2255 law, developed to implement that section for
the benefit of local offenders in the District of Columbia, controls. Frady concludes that we should therefore refrain from disturbing the ruling below, since it is based on an adequate and independent local ground of decision.*fn9
To examine Frady's contention, it is necessary to review some history. When Frady was tried in 1963, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia had exclusive jurisdiction over local felonies, and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit acted as the local appellate court, issuing binding decisions of purely local law. In 1970, however, the District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act (Court Reform Act), 84 Stat. 473, split the local District of Columbia and federal criminal jurisdictions, directing local criminal cases to a newly created local court system and retaining (with minor exceptions) only federal criminal cases in the existing Federal District Court and Court of Appeals.
As part of this division of jurisdiction, the Court Reform Act substituted for § 2255 a new local statute controlling collateral relief for those convicted in the new local trial court. See D.C. Code § 23-110 (1981). The Act, however, did not alter the jurisdiction of the federal courts in the District to hear post-conviction motions and appeals brought under § 2255, either by prisoners like Frady who were convicted of local offenses prior to the Act, or by prisoners convicted in federal court after the Act.
The crux of Frady's argument is that the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment would be violated unless the Court Reform Act is interpreted as implicitly and retroactively splitting, not just the District's court system, but also the District's law governing § 2255 motions. According to Frady, equal protection principles require that a § 2255 motion brought by a prisoner convicted
of a local crime in Federal District Court prior to the passage of the Court Reform Act be treated identically to a motion under local D.C. Code § 23-110 brought by a prisoner convicted in the local Superior Court after the passage of the Act. Frady suggests that the Court of Appeals for this reason must have ruled on his motion as though it were subject to the local law developed pursuant to § 23-110, and that we should not intervene in this local dispute.
Frady's argument, however, was neither made to the court below nor followed by it. Nowhere in the Court of Appeals' opinion -- or in the submissions to that court or to the District Court*fn10 -- is there any hint that there may be peculiarities of § 2255 law unique to collateral attack in the District of Columbia. To the contrary, the analysis and authorities cited by the Court of Appeals make it clear that the court relied on the general federal law controlling all § 2255 motions, and did not intend to afford Frady's § 2255 motion special treatment simply because Frady was convicted under the District of Columbia Code rather than under the United States Code.
Moreover, the Court of Appeals would have erred had it done so. There is no reason to believe that Congress intended the result Frady suggests, and he does not attempt the impossible task of showing that it did. Furthermore, Frady's suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, equal protection principles do not require that a motion filed pursuant to § 2255 by a prisoner convicted in the Federal District Court in 1963 be treated as though it had been filed pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110 after 1970. In fact, even those tried in federal court contemporaneously with those tried for the same offense in the local court need not always be treated identically. As we noted in Swain v. Pressley, 430 U.S. 372, 379-380, n. 12 (1977), for example, persons
convicted in the local courts are not denied equal protection of the laws simply because they, unlike persons convicted in the federal courts, must bring collateral challenges to their convictions before Art. I judges.*fn11
In short, we find no basis whatever for concluding that the ruling below was or should have been grounded on local District of Columbia law, rather than the general federal law applied to all § 2255 ...