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LEYRA v. DENNO, 347 U.S. 556 (1954)

U.S. Supreme Court

LEYRA v. DENNO, 347 U.S. 556 (1954)

347 U.S. 556

No. 635.
Argued April 28, 1954.
Decided June 1, 1954.

After petitioner had been subjected to many hours of day-and-night questioning by police officers as a murder suspect, a state-employed psychiatrist with considerable knowledge of hypnosis was introduced to him as a "doctor" brought to give him medical relief from a painful sinus. By skillful and suggestive questioning, threats and promises, the psychiatrist obtained a confession. At petitioner's first trial in a New York state court, that confession was admitted in evidence and he was convicted; but the State Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that the confession was coerced. At petitioner's second trial, that confession was not used to convict him; but other confessions made the same evening were used. The issue as to the "voluntariness" of these later confessions was submitted to the jury and petitioner was again convicted. Held: The use of confessions extracted in such a manner from a lone defendant unprotected by counsel is not consistent with the due process of law required by the Constitution, and a Federal District Court's denial of a writ of habeas corpus is reversed. Pp. 556-562.

208 F.2d 605, reversed.

Osmond K. Fraenkel argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief was Frederick W. Scholem.

William I. Siegel argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Nathaniel L. Goldstein, Attorney General of New York, Wendell P. Brown, Solicitor General, Samuel A. Hirshowitz, Assistant Attorney General, and Edward S. Silver.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Camilo Leyra, age 75, and his wife, age 80, were found dead in their Brooklyn apartment. Several days later petitioner, their son, age 50, was indicted in a state court [347 U.S. 556, 557]   charged with having murdered them with a hammer. He was convicted and sentenced to death, chiefly on several alleged confessions of guilt. The New York Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that one of the confessions, made to a state-employed psychiatrist, had been extorted from petitioner by coercion and promises of leniency in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 1 302 N. Y. 353, 98 N. E. 2d 553. Petitioner was then tried again. This time the invalidated confession was not used to convict him but several other confessions that followed it the same day were used. Petitioner objected to the admission of these other confessions on the ground that they were also coerced, but the trial court submitted to the jury the question of their "voluntariness." The jury convicted and the death sentence now before us was imposed. 2 The New York Court of Appeals, holding that there was evidence to support a finding that the confessions used were free from the coercive influences of the one previously given the psychiatrist, affirmed, Judge Fuld and the late Chief Judge Loughran dissenting. 304 N. Y. 468, 108 N. E. 2d 673. We denied certiorari. 345 U.S. 918 . Petitioner then filed this habeas corpus proceeding in a United States District Court, charging that the confessions used against him had been coerced, depriving him of due process of law. The District Court properly gave consideration to the petition, Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443 , but denied it. 113 F. Supp. 556. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, Judge Frank dissenting. 208 F.2d 605. Petitioner then sought review [347 U.S. 556, 558]   in this Court, again urging that he was denied due process on the ground that his confessions to a police captain and to two assistant state prosecutors were forced. We granted certiorari because the constitutional question appeared substantial. 347 U.S. 926 .

The use in a state criminal trial of a defendant's confession obtained by coercion - whether physical or mental - is forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment. 3 The question for our decision is therefore whether the present confessions were so coerced. This question can only be answered by reviewing the circumstances surrounding the confessions. We therefore examine the circumstances as shown by the undisputed facts of this case.

When the father failed to appear at his place of business on Tuesday, January 10, 1950, petitioner, his business partner, and others went to the father's apartment about 3 p. m. and found the bodies of the aged parents. Police were called. Although they first suspected a prowling intruder, the presence on the couple's disarranged breakfast table of a third teacup led them to think that the killer was a welcome guest. This and other circumstances drew suspicion toward petitioner. He and others were questioned by the police until about 11 p. m. on the evening of the day the bodies were discovered. On Wednesday, police again questioned petitioner from about 10 in the morning to midnight. Once more, beginning [347 U.S. 556, 559]   about 9 Thursday morning petitioner was subjected to almost constant police questioning throughout the day and much of the night until about 8:30 Friday morning. At that time petitioner was taken by police to his parents' funeral. While petitioner was at the funeral and until he returned in the late afternoon, Captain Meenahan, his chief police questioner, went home to get some "rest." After the funeral petitioner himself was permitted to go to a hotel and sleep an hour and a half. He was returned to the police station about 5 p. m. on this Friday afternoon. During his absence a concealed microphone had been installed with wire connections to another room in which the state prosecutor, the police, and possibly some others were stationed to overhear what petitioner might say. Up to this time he had not confessed to the crime.

The petitioner had been suffering from an acutely painful attack of sinus and Captain Meenahan had promised to get a physician to help him. When petitioner returned to the questioning room after the funeral, Captain Meenahan introduced him to "Dr. Helfand," supposedly to give petitioner medical relief. Dr. Helfand, however, was not a general practitioner but a psychiatrist with considerable knowledge of hypnosis. Petitioner was left with Dr. Helfand while Captain Meenahan joined the state District Attorney in the nearby listening room. Instead of giving petitioner the medical advice and treatment he expected, the psychiatrist by subtle and suggestive questions simply continued the police effort of the past days and nights to induce petitioner to admit his guilt. For an hour and a half or more the techniques of a highly trained psychiatrist were used to break petitioner's will in order to get him to say he had murdered his parents. Time and time and time again the psychiatrist told petitioner how much he wanted to and could help him, how bad it would be for petitioner if he did not [347 U.S. 556, 560]   confess, and how much better he would feel, and how much lighter and easier it would be on him if he would just unbosom himself to the doctor. Yet the doctor was at that very time the paid representative of the state whose prosecuting officials were listening in on every threat made and every promise of leniency given.

A tape recording of the psychiatric examination was made and a transcription of the tape was read into the record of this case. To show exactly what transpired we attach rather lengthy excerpts from that transcription as an appendix, post, p. 562. The petitioner's answers indicate a mind dazed and bewildered. Time after time the petitioner complained about how tired and how sleepy he was and how he could not think. On occasion after occasion the doctor told petitioner either to open his eyes or to shut his eyes. Apparently many of petitioner's answers were barely audible. On occasions the doctor informed petitioner that his lips were moving but no sound could be heard. Many times petitioner was asked to speak louder. As time went on, the record indicates that petitioner began to accept suggestions of the psychiatrist. For instance, Dr. Helfand suggested that petitioner had hit his parents with a hammer and after some minutes petitioner agreed that must have been the weapon.

Finally, after an hour and a half or longer, petitioner, encouraged by the doctor's assurances that he had done no moral wrong and would be let off easily, called for Captain Meenahan. The captain immediately appeared. It was then that the confession was given to him which was admitted against petitioner in this trial. Immediately following this confession to Captain Meenahan, petitioner's business partner was called from an adjoining room. The police had apparently brought the business partner there to have him talk to petitioner at an opportune moment. Petitioner repeated to his partner in a very brief way some of the things he had told the psychiatrist [347 U.S. 556, 561]   and the captain. Following this, petitioner was questioned by the two assistant state prosecutors. What purports to be his formal confession was taken down by their stenographer, with a notation that it was given at 10 p. m., several hours after the psychiatrist took petitioner in charge.

On the first appeal the New York Court of Appeals held that the admissions petitioner made to the psychiatrist were so clearly the product of "mental coercion" that their use as evidence was inconsistent with due process of law. On the second appeal, however, that court held that the subsequent confessions here challenged were properly admitted. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held the same thing. With this holding we cannot agree. Unlike the circumstances in Lyons v. Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 602 , 603, the undisputed facts in this case are irreconcilable with petitioner's mental freedom "to confess to or deny a suspected participation in a crime," and the relation of the confessions made to the psychiatrist, the police captain and the state prosecutors is "so close that one must say the facts of one control the character of the other . . . ." All were simply parts of one continuous process. All were extracted in the same place within a period of about five hours as the climax of days and nights of intermittent, intensive police questioning. First, an already physically and emotionally exhausted suspect's ability to resist interrogation was broken to almost trance-like submission by use of the arts of a highly skilled psychiatrist. Then the confession petitioner began making to the psychiatrist was filled in and perfected by additional statements given in rapid succession to a police officer, a trusted friend, and two state prosecutors. We hold that use of confessions extracted in such a manner from a lone defendant unprotected by counsel is not consistent with due process of law as required by our Constitution. [347 U.S. 556, 562]  

It was error for the court below to affirm the District Court's denial of petitioner's application for habeas corpus.

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

[For dissenting opinion, see post, p. 584.]

Excerpts from the transcript of the questioning of petitioner by Dr. Max Helfand, a psychiatrist, at the 88th precinct on January 13, 1950.

. . . . .

. . . . .

. . . . .

A. No, I don't say I didn't do it. I know I did it.


[ Footnote 1 ] The confession was also held to have been in violation of state law and the state's due process clause.

[ Footnote 2 ] The death sentence was imposed under a conviction for first degree murder of the father. As to the death of his mother the jury found petitioner guilty of second degree murder which does not carry the death sentence. This second degree conviction is not before us.

[ Footnote 3 ] See, e. g., Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 ; Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 ; Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219 ; Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143 ; Malinski v. New York, 324 U.S. 401 ; Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596 ; Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49 ; Stroble v. California, 343 U.S. 181 ; Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156 . The above cases illustrate the settled view of this Court that coerced confessions cannot be admitted as evidence in criminal trials. Some members of the Court reach this conclusion because of their belief that the Fourteenth Amendment makes applicable to the states the Fifth Amendment's ban against compulsory self-incrimination.

MR. JUSTICE MINTON, with whom MR. JUSTICE REED and MR. JUSTICE BURTON join, dissenting.

This petitioner was charged with murdering his parents by beating the life out of them with a hammer. No one claims that he has a defense to the charge. It is contended, however, that his conviction was not obtained in accordance with due process of law.

He has already had two trials. His first conviction was appealed and reversed. The second one was appealed and affirmed, and this Court denied certiorari on a petition that set up the same constitutional questions now raised. Then habeas corpus proceedings were instituted [347 U.S. 556, 585]   in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York and relief was denied. That judgment was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and is the one now here on certiorari.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed the first conviction on the ground that a confession introduced in evidence at the trial was the result of mental coercion and hence involuntary. The threats, cajoling, and promises of leniency, utilized by Dr. Helfand, a psychiatrist called in by the District Attorney, to induce petitioner to confess were soundly condemned by that court. The confession thus obtained was held inadmissible for the purpose of proving petitioner's guilt. But petitioner's subsequent confessions to Captain Meenahan of the police, to the two assistant district attorneys, and to his business associate, Herrschaft, were not invalidated as a matter of law. The case was remanded to the trial court with directions to submit to a jury under proper instructions the question whether the subsequent confessions resulted from or were influenced by the mental coercion which produced the Helfand confession.

The case was tried a second time, and the question of the voluntariness of the subsequent confessions was submitted to the jury under clear and ample instructions as to which petitioner raises no objection here. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder of the father, and a sentence of death was imposed.

We are now asked to hold that the later confessions were involuntary as a matter of law and that petitioner was denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment because the jury was allowed to consider the voluntariness of the subsequent confessions. It seems to me the very essence of due process to submit to a jury the question of whether these later confessions were tainted by the prior coercion and promises which led to the Helfand confession. I am familiar with no case in [347 U.S. 556, 586]   which this Court has ever held that an invalid confession ipso facto invalidates all subsequent confessions as a matter of law. It does not seem to me a denial of due process for the State to allow the jury to say, under all the facts and circumstances in evidence and under proper instructions by the court, whether the subsequent confessions were tainted or were free and voluntary. This is precisely what New York did. In Lyons v. Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 603 , it was said:

The only question before us is whether the effects of the coercion practiced by Dr. Helfand so clearly continued to influence petitioner's mind as to make unreasonable any conclusion other than that the later confessions were also coerced. If there was evidence to support contrary inferences as to the continuing effect of the coercive practices, the conviction should not be disturbed. It is not our function to set aside state court convictions on the ground that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 180 .

The evidence shows an involuntary confession to Dr. Helfand. * It was followed a few minutes later by a [347 U.S. 556, 587]   confession to Captain Meenahan. Some half hour later petitioner confessed to a business associate, Herrschaft, saying, "Well, you know what it's all about; I did it." Herrschaft asked, "Do you mean that you killed your own mother and father?" and petitioner replied, "I did it." This confession was admitted in this Court to have been voluntarily made, and no complaint is made of its admission in evidence. Sandwiched in between the Meenahan confession and the confession to the assistant district attorneys some two and one-half hours later, the Herrschaft confession presents enough evidence in itself to go to the jury on whether these three confessions, one admitted to have been valid, were all given by petitioner voluntarily with the considered purpose of making a clean breast of the whole thing.

Nor was this the only evidence. Petitioner boldly examined Dr. Helfand, the State's witness, for the purpose, among others, of laying a foundation for the introduction of expert testimony by petitioner's psychiatrist that the effect of the coercion carried over to the later confessions. Petitioner's expert testified as expected. The State then placed on the stand another psychiatrist who gave the opposite opinion, based on evidence that petitioner in his later confessions gave details of the crime known only to him and gave them freely without urging. If this disagreement between experts did not under New York law [347 U.S. 556, 588]   constitute a conflict in the evidence sufficient standing alone to go to the jury, there was other evidence, such as the Herrschaft confession, to be considered, together with the testimony of the assistant district attorneys that petitioner seemed quite normal and relaxed, and relieved to talk to them. As I said before, it is not our function to weigh the evidence. Whether there was any evidence to go to a jury is the question. In my opinion, there was a question of fact presented by the evidence.

This Court concluded its opinion in the Lyons case in these words:

I cannot say here that the subsequent confessions as a matter of law were so completely under the influence of the first confession that to let a jury pass upon that influence as it affected the voluntariness of the later confessions amounts to a denial of due process of law. To let the jury pass upon this question is not so unfair to petitioner as to violate the fundamental principles of justice.

It is contended that the promises of leniency made by Dr. Helfand stand on a different footing; that once a promise is made, its effect must be presumed to continue until the promise is clearly withdrawn. But such has never been the law. See State v. Willis, 71 Conn. 293, 313, 41 A. 820, 826. As in the case of other forms of coercion and inducement, once a promise of leniency is made a presumption arises that it continues to operate on the mind of the accused. But a showing of a variety of circumstances can overcome that presumption. The length of time elapsing between the promise and the confession, the apparent authority of the person making the promise, whether the confession is made to the same person [347 U.S. 556, 589]   who offered leniency, and the explicitness and persuasiveness of the inducement are among the many factors to be weighed.

There are two parties to this case, the State and the petitioner, and on the State rests the heavy burden of proving guilt. As Mr. Justice Cardozo said in Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 122 :

New York must be mystified in its efforts to enforce its law against homicide to have us say it may not submit a disputed question of fact to a jury. The Court holds that to do so denies due process. The answer to that question, which did not seem substantial to us when certiorari was sought to review the decision of the New York Court of Appeals, now emerges crystal clear when we are reviewing the decision of a federal court dealing with it in a collateral habeas corpus proceeding. And yet the jury and a majority of the judges of every court, state and federal, that until now have considered the matter have found no such failure to observe constitutional standards. Mr. Justice Cardozo's words in the Snyder case, supra, at page 122, seem especially pertinent here:

The careful, considerate, fair trial accorded petitioner is in keeping with the fundamental essentials of justice which are due process, and I would affirm.

[ Footnote * ] The record discloses that petitioner was questioned by Captain Meenahan on Tuesday, the day of the murder, from about 9 or 10 in the evening until 10:30 or 10:45 at his parents' apartment. On Wednesday at about 10 in the morning, he was met at his place of business by detectives who questioned him off and on until 1:20 p.m., when Captain Meenahan began an interrogation which was concluded at 11:30 or 12 that night. He was then allowed to go home. It was not until Thursday that he was taken in custody. That [347 U.S. 556, 587]   morning he was taken out by detectives to check his alibi. Questioning by Captain Meenahan began again about 2 that afternoon. He was kept at the station until 8:30 o'clock Friday morning, but there was little questioning after 10 p. m. Thursday evening. On Friday morning, he was taken to his parents' funeral and then permitted to sleep for an hour and a half. He was returned to the police station, and about 5 o'clock Friday afternoon the interview with Dr. Helfand began. The coercion practiced by Dr. Helfand was forcefully condemned by the New York Court of Appeals and caused it to declare the confession to Dr. Helfand invalid as a matter of law. The validity of this confession is not involved. [347 U.S. 556, 590]  

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