Social and Legal Prejudice in Runyon v. United States

Runyon v. United States is a pending capital case in which the defendant has filed for cert and the United States sought eleven extensions of time before filing its brief in opposition earlier this month. As Amy Howe observed on SCOTUSBlog, the government’s highly unusual series of extensions delayed the Court’s consideration for almost a year.

Runyon is notable in part because it involves the interaction of prejudice in two senses—social and legal. In other words, Runyon asks whether prejudice in the sense of legal injury resulted from the government’s use of prejudice in the sense of social stereotypes.

The defendant in Runyon was convicted of performing murder for hire, and his cert petition raises questions concerning harmless error and cumulative error. During the penalty phase, the defendant sought to establish, as a mitigating circumstance, that the people who hired him to commit the murder were equally culpable and would not be sentenced to death. To rebut that argument, the government showed jurors a video of the defendant’s interrogation in which the defendant failed to admit his role in the offense. However, the lengthy interrogation video also included numerous objectionable statements on the part of the police. Here are a few examples, all taken from the petition for cert:

  • “You know, if you’re an honorable Asian man and your integrity is intact and you have any respect for anybody at all, then you’ll do the right thing today, okay?”
  • “If you asked God for forgiveness, do you believe that He’ll forgive you for that? You can repent your sins, can’t you?”
  • “But don’t let me walk out of that, that door right there thinking that you’re some piece of shit that murdered a U.S. naval officer and didn’t have enough respect to man up when he — when it was done.”
  • “[W]hat do you think twelve reasonable people would, uh, conclude from that? . . . [T]hey’re going to make you out to be a monster, man.”

The interrogation video was meant to go to whether the defendant had cooperated and shown remorse, as compared with the other defendants. But the interrogators’ remarks insinuated clearly improper reasons for treating this defendant differently from the others.  These improper reasons could have shaped the jury’s perceptions of the defendant and his failure to confess. While none of these statements drew a specific objection, the trial court directed the jury not to rely on the officers’ statements and required the jurors to sign a statement that race and religion didn’t figure into their reasoning.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions in Runyon while noting that the interrogation statements were “stereotyping” and “insulting” and should not have been presented to the jury. But the court didn’t think that the capital sentence was a close call. After noting that the defendant had arguably forfeited any objection to the offensive remarks, the court applied regular harmless error analysis and found harmlessness. In its opposition brief, the government argues in part that the case is a poor vehicle because plain error review should apply—even though the Fourth Circuit chose not to rely on it.

One aspect of Runyon calls to mind the harmless-error petition that the Court granted but then dismissed in Vasquez v. United States. During the 2012 Vasquez oral argument, the Justices pressed counsel on whether harmlessness should be tested by inquiring into the thought processes of the actual jury, as opposed to a hypothetical “rational” jury. Most of the justices seemed to think that the answer was yes, despite the government’s hesitancy on that point. As compared with VasquezRunyon’s question presented is better framed to reach the actual/hypothetical jury issue. According to the defendant, the court of appeals in Runyon failed to account for the actual jury’s signals that the case was close. For example, the jury declined to recommend capital punishment on all capital charges.

Another, related aspect of Runyon calls to mind Justice Sotomayor’s 2013 statement respecting denial of cert in Calhoun v. United States. The central fact in Calhoun was that the prosecutor had made the following remark to the jury: “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you—a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?” This appeal to racial guilt, Sotomayor made clear, was unacceptable. Still, Sotomayor “did not disagree” with the Court’s denial of cert in light of the case’s vehicle problems: the defendant had forfeited any claim of prejudice or structural error, and the defendant’s claim was reviewable only for plain error. Sotomayor concluded her statement with these words: “I hope never to see a case like this again.” A similar sentiment may explain why the government sought so many extensions in Runyon, despite having already taken a position on the question presented in Vasquez.

It will be interesting to see whether the Court views Runyon as a more certworthy version of either Vasquez or Calhoun—or both.

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