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GIBBS V. BURKE , 337 U.S. 773 (1949)

U.S. Supreme Court

GIBBS V. BURKE , 337 U.S. 773 (1949)

337 U.S. 773

BURKE, Warden.
No. 418.

Argued April 21, 22, 1949.
Decided June 27, 1949.

[ Gibbs v. Burke 337 U.S. 773 (1949) ] [337 U.S. 773 , 774]  

Mr. Frederick Bernays Wiener, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Karl W. Johnson, of Media, Pa., for respondent.

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case raises the question whether under the circumstances of pet tioner's trial for larceny in a state court without counsel, Pennsylvania deprived him of a federal constitutional right, protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Petitioner, a man in his thirties, was arrested in Pennsylvania in 1947 for the larceny of certain clothing and other personal effects allegedly belonging to one James Blades. Upon the return of an indictment he pleaded not guilty, was tried before a jury which found him guilty, and was sentenced to a term of two and one-half to five years in the penitentiary. The record shows neither a request for counsel by the petitioner nor an offer of counsel by the court. Petitioner conducted his own defense.

On May 24, 1948, Gibbs filed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, a petition for habeas corpus in which he alleged his arrest, trial, conviction and sentence, and in which he also stated that he 'was denied counsel and through ignorance of law and fact was forced to act as his own counsel' and that he 'was denied his constitutional Rights as set forth in the Ten Original Amendments, Article VI.' Upon the issuance of a rule to show cause, respondent answered, admitting the formal allega- [337 U.S. 773 , 775]   tions and the fact of trial and sentence, but alleging the following concerning the denial of right to counsel: 'The transcript of the notes of testimony taken in the matter does not disclose that the relator demanded counsel nor requested that counsel be appointed to represent him. * * * It is also averred by way of answer that the relator's examination of witnesses and questions asked during the course of the trial fully disclosed his familiarity with legal process in the criminal courts.' The answer also attached a transcript of the proceedings at the trial and a transcript of petitioner's criminal record. It showed eight convictions and nine acquittals, discharges, and no true bills. On July 6, 1948, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denied the writ. As the allegations of the petition raised grave doubts as to whether petitioner had been accorded due process in his trial, we granted the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari. 335 U.S. 867 .

James Blades, the prosecuting witness, Mrs. Lafield, his mother, Constable Fleming, the arresting officer, and James Silverstein, a secondhand dealer, testified for the state. Briefly summarized, their testimony tended to prove that petitioner came to Blades' home on the morning of the alleged theft, looked in Blades' room, where the stolen articles were in plain view, and, finding Blades absent, departed. When Blades returned home that day he noticed that the articles were missing from his room and, upon learning from his mother that Gibbs had been there, he notified the police. He and Constable Fleming found some of the missing articles in a pawnshop and found the petitioner in a taproom wearing Blades' had and watch. Later Blades' wallet was found in the jail cell in which petitioner was incarcerated. Silverstein, the secondhand dealer in the pawnshop, testified that Gibbs had brought the missing clothing in and had sold them to him. [337 U.S. 773 , 776]   Petitioner, by means of cross-examination, sought to establish that the articles had been taken, and some of them sold, pursuant to an understanding between him and Blades.

Several events occurring at the trial are pertinent to petitioner's claim that failure to appoint counsel violated the federal Constitution. ( 1) Considerable inadmissible hearsay and otherwise incompetent evidence was allowed to go in without objection by Gibbs. 1 (2) When petitioner recalled the prosecuting witness Blades for further cross-examination the trial judge accepted the prosecutor's suggestion and made Blades the petitioner's witness for the purpose of the unfavorable, testimony then elicited. 2 Thus he made this testimony binding on the [337 U.S. 773 , 777]   petitioner although the Pennsylvania rule would seem to be that an adverse itness can be so examined and yet remain the witness of the opposing party. 3 (3) Although, as we have already noted, petitioner attempted to defend himself on the ground that he took and sold the articles pursuant to an agreement with the prosecuting witness, he was prevented from proving a fact clearly relevant to that defense,4 i.e., that Blades had previously made a baseless criminal charge against him under similar circumstances. 5 ( 4) The trial judge also advised petitioner in the presence of the jury, so far as the record shows, as to his opportunity to avail himself of the privilege againt self-incrimination which was his under Pennsylvania law. In doing so he made reference to possible past convictions. 6 So to require him to claim his con- [337 U.S. 773 , 778]   stitutional safeguard in the presence of the jury was, petitioner claims, a violation of Pennsylvania law. Cf. Philadelphia v. Cline, 158 Pa.Super. 179, 185, 44 A.2d 610; Commonwealth v. Valeroso, 273 Pa. 213, 116 A. 828. Respondent does not claim otherwise. The information given by the judge as to past convictions could have been given by a lawyer to the petitioner beyond the jury's hearing. (5) Finally, when sentencing petitioner, the judge used language which, it is claimed, evinced a hostile and thoroughly unjudicial attitude. 7   [337 U.S. 773 , 779]   Two procedural points require but brief attention. The federal question was adequately if inartistically raised in the petition for a writ of habeas corpus. We consider insignificant under these circumstances the fact that petitioner cited the Sixth rather than the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. 8 Meticulous insistence upon regularity in procedural allegations is foreign to the purpose of habeas corpus. 9 The state does not contest the propriety of a considerations of the case on its merits. 10 Thus it apparently concedes that habeas corpus was a proper method of testing the constitutionality of the conviction and that it was within the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. 11   [337 U.S. 773 , 780]   Since it is clear that a failure to request counsel does not constitute a waiver when the defendant does not know of his right to counsel, Uveges v. Pennsylvania, 335 U.S. 437 , we proceed to the merits. We consider this case on the theory upheld in Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 , that the Constitution does not guarantee to every person charged with a serious crime in a state court the right to the assistance of counsel regardless of the circumstances. Betts v. Brady rejected the contention that the Fourteenth Amendment automatically afforded such protection. In so doing, however, it did not, of course, hold or int mate that counsel was never required in noncapital cases in state courts in order to satisfy the necessity for basic fairness which is formulated in that Amendment.

There have been made to this Court without avail arguments based on the long practice as to counsel in state courts to convince us that under the Fourteenth Amendment a state may refuse to furnish counsel even when needed by the accused in serious felonies other than capital. Our decisions have been that where the ignorance, youth, or other incapacity of the defendant made a trial without counsel unfair, the defendant is deprived of his liberty contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. 12 Counsel necessary for his adequate defense would be lacking.

Respondent argues that to hold to such precedents leaves the state prosecuting authorities uncertain as to whether to offer counsel to all accused who are without adequate funds and under serious charges in state courts. We cannot offer a panacea for the difficulty. Such an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment would be an unwarranted federal intrusion into state control of its criminal procedure. The due process clause is not susceptible to reduction to a mathematical formula. 13   [337 U.S. 773 , 781]   Furthermore, the fair conduct of a trial depends largely on the wisdom and understanding of the trial judge. He knows the essentials of a fair trial. The primary duty falls on him to determine the accused's need of counsel at arraignment and during trial. He may guide a defendant without a lawyer past the errors that make trials unfair. Cf. Uveges v. Pennsylvania, supra. Failure to protect properly the rights of one accused of serious offenses is unusual. Obviously a fair trial test necessitates an appraisal before and during the trial of the facts of each case to determine whether the need for counsel is so great that the deprivation of the right to counsel works a fundamental unfairness. The recent discussion of the problem in Uveges v. Pennsylvania, supra, makes further elaboration unnecessary. We think that the facts of this case, particularly the events occurring at the trial, reveal, in the light of that opinion and the precedents there cited, that petitioner was handicapped by lack of counsel to such an extent that his constitutional right to a fair trial was denied. This case is of the type referred to in Betts v. Brady, supra, 316 U.S. at page 473, 63 S.Ct. at page 1261, as lacking fundamental fairness because neither counsel nor adequate judicial guidance or protection was furnished at the trial.

A defendant who pleads not guilty and elects to go to trial is usually more in need of the assistance of a lawyer than is one who pleads guilty. The record in this case evidences petitioner's helplessness, without counsel and without more assistance from the judge, in defending himself against this charge of larceny. We take no note of the tone of the comments at the time of the [337 U.S. 773 , 782]   sentence. The trial was over. The questionable issues allowed to pass unnoticed as to procedure, evidence, privilege, and instructions detailed in the first part of this opinion demonstrate to us that petitioner did not have a trial that measures up to the test of fairness prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Reversed and remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice BLACK and Mr. Justice DOUGLAS concur in the judgment of the Court. They think that Betts v. Brady should be overruled. If that case is to be followed, however, they agree with the Court's opinion insofar as it holds that petitioner is entitled to relief under the Betts v. Brady doctrine.

Mr. Justice MURPHY and Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE concur i the result.


[ Footnote 1 ] Blades: 'Then she (witness's mother) tells me about him (petitioner) being there.'

Constable Fleming: 'I got a telephone call from the Chief of Police, Mr. Miller, to go up to Mrs. Lafield's to investigate a robbery that occurred there. * * * I asked Jim, where was the suitcase. He said, the suitcase was by the bed. * * *'

The District Attorney's unsworn offer of proof concerning the missing articles was as follows:

[ Footnote 2 ] 'The Defendant: May I call the prosecutor (Blades) back on the stand?

[ Footnote 3 ] Commonwealth v. Reeves, 267 Pa. 361, 362Ä363, 110 A. 158; Commonwealth v. Eisenhower, 181 Pa. 470, 476, 37 A. 521, 59 Am.St.Rep. 670.

[ Footnote 4 ] Commonwealth v. Farrel, 187 Pa. 408, 423Ä424, 41 A. 382; see 3 Wigmore, Evidence (3d ed., 1940) 950.

[ Footnote 5 ] 'Q. Last fall, last year, didn't you wreck your own automobile and enter a complaint that I stole your car and wrecked it?

[ Footnote 6 ] 'The Court: Now then, Gibbs, you may, if you want to, take the stand and say anything you want to say, but I warn you if you do, if you have any record of any prior conviction, any felonies or any misdemeanors in the nature of what we call crimen falsi, the commonwealth may offer the record of any convictions you may have had. I am warning you in advance. You may, however, take the stand and testify or you may refuse to take the stand and if you do refuse to take the stand, the commonwealth and the court may not comment unfavorably about your failure to take the stand and testify. I want to warn you fully before you do take the stand.

[ Footnote 7 ] 'By the Court:

[ Footnote 8 ] Cf. Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 292 , 1066, and cases there cited.

[ Footnote 9 ] Tomkins v. Missouri, 323 U.S. 485, 487 , 371.

[ Footnote 10 ] Respondent's brief states: 'The issue now to be determined is whether he was properly charged with the offense, tried, convicted and sentenced, under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Constitution of the United States, more particularly the portion of the Fourteenth Amendment. * * *'

[ Footnote 11 ] See Commonwealth ex rel. McGlinn v. Smith, 344 Pa. 41, 24 A.2d 1; Commonwealth ex rel. Penland v. Ashe, 341 Pa. 337, 19 A.2d 464.

[ Footnote 12 ] Uveges v. Pennsylvania, 335 U.S. 437, 441 , and cases there cited.

[ Footnote 13 ] Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 ; Bute v. Illinois, 333 U.S. 640, 676 , 781; Townsend v. Burke, 334 U.S. 736, 739 , 1254.

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