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BROWN v. STATE OF MISSISSIPPI, 297 U.S. 278 (1936)

U.S. Supreme Court

BROWN v. STATE OF MISSISSIPPI, 297 U.S. 278 (1936)

297 U.S. 278

BROWN et al.
No. 301.

Argued Jan. 10, 1936.
Decided Feb. 17, 1936.

[297 U.S. 278, 279]   Messrs. Earl Brewer and J. Morgan Stevens, both of Jackson, Miss., for petitioners.

Messrs. W. D. Conn, of Corinth, Miss., and W. H. Maynard, of Baltimore, Md., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether convictions, which rest solely upon confessions shown to have been extorted by officers of the state by brutality and violence, are consistent with the due process of law required by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Petitioners were indicted for the murder of one Raymond Stewart, whose death occurred on March 30, 1934. They were indicted on April 4, 1934, and were then arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Counsel were appointed by the court to defend them. Trial was begun the next morning and was concluded on the following day, when they were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Aside from the confessions, there was no evidence sufficient to warrant the submission of the case to the jury. After a preliminary inquiry, testimony as to the confessions was received over the objection of defendants' counsel. Defendants then testified that the confessions were false and had been procured by physical torture. The case went to the jury with instructions, upon the request of defendants' counsel, that if the jury had reasonable doubt as to the confessions having resulted from coercion, and that they were not they were not to be considered as evidence. On their to the Su- [297 U.S. 278, 280]   preme Court of the State, defendants assigned as error the inadmissibility of the confessions. The judgment was affirmed. 158 So. 339.

Defendants then moved in the Supreme Court of the State to arrest the judgment and for a new trial on the ground that all the evidence against them was obtained by coercion and brutality known to the court and to the district attorney, and that defendants had been denied the benefit of counsel or opportunity to confer with counsel in a reasonable manner. The motion was supported by affidavits. At about the same time, defendants filed in the Supreme Court a 'suggestion of error' explicitly challenging the proceedings of the trial, in the use of the confessions and with respect to the alleged denial of representation by counsel, as violating the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The state court entertained the suggestion of error, considered the federal question, and decided it against defendants' contentions. 161 So. 465. Two judges dissented. 161 So. 470. We granted a writ of certiorari. 296 U.S. 559 , 56 S.Ct. 128.

The grounds of the decision were (1) that immunity from self- incrimination is not essential to due process of law; and (2) that the failure of the trial court to exclude the confessions after the introduction of evidence showing their incompetency, in the absence of a request for such exclusion, did not deprive the defendants of life or liberty without due process of law; and that even if the trial court had erroneously overruled a motion to exclude the confessions, the ruling would have been mere error reversible on appeal, but not a violation of constitution right. 161 So. 465, at page 468.

The opinion of the state court did not set forth the evidence as to the circumstances in which the confessions were procured. That the evidence established that they were procured by coercion was not questioned. The state [297 U.S. 278, 281]   court said: 'After the state closed its case on the merits, the appellants, for the first time, introduced evidence from which it appears that the confessions were not made voluntarily but were coerced.' 161 So. 465, at page 466. There is no dispute as to the facts upon this point, and as they are clearly and adequately stated in the dissenting opinion of Judge Griffith (with whom Judge Anderson concurred), showing both the extreme brutality of the measures to extort the confessions and the participation of the state authorities, we quote this part of his opinion in full, as follows (161 So. 465, at pages 470, 471):

1. The state stresses the statement in Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U.S. 78, 114 , 29 S.Ct. 14, 26, that 'exemption from compulsory self-incrimination in the courts of the states is not secured by any part of the Federal Constitution,' and the statement in Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 , 54 S.Ct. 330, 332, 90 A.L.R. 575, that 'the privilege against self-incrimination may be withdrawn and the accused put upon the stand as a witness for the state.' But the question of the right of the state to withdraw the privilege against self-incrimination is not here involved. The compulsion to which the quoted statements refer is that of the processes of justice by which the accused may be called as a witness and required to testify. Compulsion by torture to extort a confession is a different matter.

The state is free to regulate the procedure of its courts in accordance with its own conceptions of policy, unless in so doing it 'offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.' Snyder v. Massachusetts, supra; Rogers v. Peck, 199 U.S. 425, 434 , 26 S.Ct. 87. The state may abolish trial by jury. It may dispense with indictment by a grand jury and substitute complaint or information. Walker v. Sauvinet, 92 U.S. 90 ; Hurtado v. California, 110 U.S. 516 , 4 S.Ct. 111, 292; Snyder v. Massachusetts, supra. But the freedom of the state in establishing its policy is the freedom of constitutional government and is limited by the requirement of due process of law. Because a state may dispense with a jury trial, it does not follow that it may substitute trial by ordeal. The rack and tor- [297 U.S. 278, 286]   ture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand. The state may not permit an accused to be hurried to conviction under mob domination- where the whole proceeding is but a mask-without supplying corrective process. Moore v. Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86, 91 , 43 S.Ct. 265. The state may not deny to the accused the aid of counsel. Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 , 53 S.Ct. 55, 84 A.L.R. 527. Nor may a state, through the action of its officers, contrive a conviction through the pretense of a trial which in truth is 'but used as a means of depriving a defendant of liberty through a deliberate deception of court and jury by the presentation of testimony known to be perjured.' Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 112 , 55 S.Ct. 340, 342, 98 A.L.R. 406. And t e trial equally is a mere pretense where the state authorities have contrived a conviction resting solely upon confessions obtained by violence. The due process clause requires 'that state action, whether through one agency or another, shall be consistent with the fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions.' Hebert v. Louisiana, 272 U.S. 312, 316 , 47 S. Ct. 103, 104, 48 A.L.R. 1102. It would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process.

2. It is in this view that the further contention of the State must be considered. That contention rests upon the failure of counsel for the accused, who had objected to the admissibility of the confessions, to move for their exclusion after they had been introduced and the fact of coercion had been proved. It is a contention which proceeds upon a misconception of the nature of petitioners' complaint. That complaint is not of the commission of mere error, but of a wrong so fundamental that it made the whole proceeding a mere pretense of a trial and rendered the conviction and sentence wholly void. Moore v. Dempsey, supra. We are not concerned with a mere [297 U.S. 278, 287]   question of state practice, or whether counsel assigned to petitioners were competent or mistakenly assumed that their first objections were sufficient. In an earlier case the Supreme Court of the State had recognized the duty of the court to supply corrective process where due process of law had been denied. In Fisher v. State, 145 Miss. 116, 134, 110 So. 361, 365, the court said: 'Coercing the supposed state's criminals into confessions and using such confessions so coerced from them against them in trials has been the curse of all countries. It was the chief iniquity, the crowning infamy of the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, and other similar institutions. The Constitution recognized the evils that lay behind these practices and prohibited them in this country. ... The duty of maintaining constitutional rights of a person on trial for his life rises above mere rules of procedure, and wherever the court is clearly satisfied that such violations exist, it will refuse to sanction such violations and will apply the corrective.'

In the instant case, the trial court was fully advised by the undisputed evidence of the way in which the confessions had been procured. The trial court knew that there was no other evidence upon which conviction and sentence could be based. Yet it proceeded to permit conviction and to pronounce sentence. The conviction and sentence were void for want of the essential elements of due process, and the proceeding thus vitiated could be challenged in any appropriate manner. Mooney v. Holohan, supra. It was challenged before the Supreme Court of the State by the express invocation of the Fourteenth Amendment. That court entertained the challenge, considered the federal question thus presented, but declined to enforce petitioners' constitutional right. The court thus denied a federal right fully established and specially set up and claimed, and the judgment must be reversed.

It is so ordered.

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