What Is Structural Error?
Structural error is the kind of trial mistake that is so bad the appellate court automatically reverses the conviction.
You see not every trial error means reversal. In fact, most trial errors won’t lead to a reversal. But structural error is considered so bad, that reversal is mandatory even if the defendant can’t necessarily show any prejudice.
Any attorney who fancies her or himself a trial attorney has to have a rough idea on exactly what is considered to be structural error.
Note: if you’re looking for more information on the Illinois criminal law start here.
We need to take one step back to put this kind of error into context.
You see, in an appeal, sometimes a criminal defendant doesn’t procedurally take all the required steps to preserve a trial issue for an appeal. Normally, in an appeal a party is asking the appellate court to review a claim of error that happened in the lower court.
If a defendant never claims any error then there is nothing to appeal.
Except, the appellate court does recognize a kind of error it calls plain error. When a defendant does not procedurally claim error correctly an appellate court will still reverse a conviction under plain error if the error was…
See Episode 351 – People v. Sebby, 2017 IL 119445 (June). (Duration 9:25) (Illinois Supreme Court fine tunes plain error)
Structural Error Is Second Prong Plain Error
You can see, that when we are talking about structural error we really mean “second prong” plain error. Structural error is really just second prong plain error.
Error that is so bad that it affects the fairness of the trial and challenges the integrity of the judicial process is structural error.
That is some bad stuff.
Every trial attorney should seek to avoid it.
Constitutional Error Is Not Structural Error
To begin with we should note that not all trial error is considered structural error. Even full blown easily recognized constitutional error does not necessarily equate as being structural error. See People v. Shaw, 186 Ill. 2d 301, 344-45 (1999).
Structural error is its own class of “bad”. The Supreme Court has recognized an error as structural only in a very limited class of cases. See People v. Glasper, 234 Ill.2d 173, 917 N.E.2d 401 (June 2009), quoting Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 8, 119 S.Ct. 1827, 1833, 144 L.E.d.2d 35, 46 (1999); Johnsons v. United States, 520 U.S. 461, 468-49, 117 S.Ct. 1544, 1549-50, 137 L.E.2d 718, 728 (1997). Washington v. Recuenco, 548 U.S. 212, 218, 126 S.Ct. 2546, 2551, 165 L.Ed.2d 466, 474 (2006).
Those cases include a
- Complete denial of counsel
- Trial before a biased judge
- Racial discrimination in the selection of a grand jury
- Denial of self-representation at trial
- Denial of a public Trial
- A defective reasonable doubt instruction
See The Following Illinois Cases Recognizing Structural Error
- Shackling a defendant before the jury – People v. Boose, 66 Ill. 2d 261, 265 (1977) (shackling of the accused should be avoided if possible because (1) it tends to prejudice the jury against the accused (2) it restricts his ability to assist his counsel during trial and (3) it offends the dignity of the judicial process)
- Shackling a defendant in a bench trial – Episode 178 – People v. Williams, 2016 IL App (3d) 130901 (April). (Duration 7:30) (the reason to not shackle an accused during trial is to prevent great prejudice against defendant in the eyes of the trier of fact including a judge)
- Bench trial without a knowing wavier of jury – Episode 614 – People v. Johnson, 2019 IL App (1st) 162517 (March). (Duration 11:45) (No valid jury waiver in the record even though he apparently signed the waiver form.)
- Jury deliberation not private – Episode 452 – People v. Henderson, 2017 IL App (3d) 150550 (November). (Duration 8:53) (only person in the room with the jury was another ASA who was running the video equipment for them)
- Evidence of coerced confession – Episode 116 – People v. Weathers, 2015 IL App (1st) 133264 (November). (Duration: 3:21) (case advances to full hearing on a postconviction upon credible evidence of coerced confession)
- Drug informants contract is broken by the state – Episode 100 – People v. Stapinski, 2015 IL 118278 (August). (Duration 12:43). (informant promised they wouldn’t charge him when the charged him anyway the court dismissed the indictment saying fundamental fairness required it)
- Judge leaves the bench during a bench trial – People v. Vargas, 174 Ill. 2d 355 (1996) (structural error when judge leaves the bench during a trial)
- Family member kept out of courtroom during voir dire – Episode 270 – People v. Evans, 2016 IL App (1st) 142190 (December). (Duration 7:02) (structural error when grandma kept out during voir dire)
- Denial of counsel of choice – Episode 244 – People v. Buckhanan, 2016 IL App (1st) 131097 (September). (Duration 8:41). (structural error for the court to disqualify an attorney just because the attorney’s father represented one of the state’s witnesses)
- Defendant not allowed to waive his right to a jury – Episode 683 – People v. Jordan, 2019 IL App (1st) 161848 (August). (Duration 7:14) (They started picking a jury then he wanted a bench trial and the judge said no, error to not let him waive.)
Examples Of What IS NOT Considered Structural Error
- Failure to instruct on the Zehr principles – People v. Thompson, 238 Ill. 2d 598, 609 (2010) (An error is structural “only if it necessarily renders a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable means of determining guilt or innocence.”); see also People v. Dismuke, 2017 IL App (2d) 141203 (June). Episode 361 (Duration 8:30) (Zehr principles are royal screwed up leading to a reversal under plain error.); and People v. Belknap, 2014 IL 117094 (December) (failure of the trial court to get the Zehr admonishments right is not strictly plain error).
- Failure to instruct the jury on an essential element of the crime – Episode 368 – People v. Thompson, 2017 IL App (5th) 120079-B (May). (Duration 6:27) (attempt instruction was missing the language on taking “a substantial step” but no prejudice to defendant shown)
- Wrong and innaccurate information by trial counsel before a plea – Episode 436 – People v. Brown, 2017 IL 121681 (November). (Duration 5:41) (Defendant took a plea because his attorney told him he would serve 50% of the time. It was an 85% case which added 6 years to his “in” time.)
- Wrong immigration information before a plea – Episode 272 – People v. Valdez, 2016 IL 119860.(Duration 41:18) (petitioner must convince the court that a decision to reject the plea bargain would have been rational had counsel advised him accurately on the deportation consequences of pleading guilty)
- Judge falls asleep during trial – Episode 699 – People v. Sheley, 2017 IL App (3d) 140659 (October). (Duration 14:30) (a judge briefly falling asleep for a portion of a trial does not rise to the level of structural error)
- Locking the courtroom doors to answer one jury question after trial is done – Episode 502 – People v. Gore, 2018 IL App (3d) 150627 (April). (Duration 6:36) (not structural error judge locks the doors during a jury question)