Arraignment in chapel ruled ‘harmless error’

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Holding court proceedings in a prison chapel violates the establishment clause, a Texas state appeals court ruled recently — but it deemed the error harmless and did not require reversing the guilty plea of a defendant who was arraigned there.

Conrad Lilly, who was facing charges for assaulting a public servant, was arraigned in the French Robertson Unit Chapel of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Jones County, Texas. (The court opinion does not say when the arraignment occurred.) State law allows smaller counties — those with less than 30,000 in population — to maintain a branch courthouse outside the county seat. Since the early 1990s, Jones County has been conducting proceedings at the French Robertson Unit Chapel, which is some distance away from Anson, the county seat.

The prison chapel contained Bibles and a stained-glass window featuring a cross and the Ten Commandments. Lilly petitioned for the next proceeding in his case to be transferred to a public courthouse. He argued that holding court in a chapel violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. After the motion was denied, Lilly pleaded guilty and received a six-year sentence. But he also appealed the constitutional issues to the Texas Court of Appeals.

Examining the establishment-clause issue, the Texas appeals court used the “reasonable observer test,” which asks whether a reasonable observer would understand a government action to send a message that those who don't share a particular religious faith are outsiders.

“Clearly, a reasonable observer would recognize the chapel as a Christian facility,” Justice Rick Strange wrote for the three-judge panel in its Feb. 17 opinion in Lilly v. State of Texas, though he also cited passages from Supreme Court opinions that the mere presence of religious symbols does not present an establishment-clause problem.

However, Strange determined that the symbols in the chapel send a predominantly religious message. “If it is appropriate to use a Christian chapel as a courtroom, it must also be permissible to use a synagogue, mosque or temple for the same purpose. A reasonable observer would perceive that a message supporting that particular religion was being sent to those in attendance.”

Although the appeals court found that the state violated the establishment clause, the opinion classified the error as harmless rather than structural. In criminal law, some errors are deemed harmless in that they do not change the defendant’s fate, whereas structural errors involve fundamental, pervasive legal mistakes throughout the case that mandate a reversal in the defendant’s favor.

Lilly contended the establishment clause was a structural error, but the appeals court disagreed.

“There is no indication that holding court in the chapel contributed to Lilly’s decision to plead guilty,” Strange wrote, noting that Lilly had rejected the original plea offer from the State. “Moreover, there is nothing in the record to show that he would have pleaded not guilty if the court proceeding had been held someplace other than the chapel.”

Strange concluded that “we find beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to Lilly’s decision to plead guilty and that it does not require reversal.”

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