304 U.S. 458 (1938), 699, Johnson v. Zerbst

Docket Nº:No. 699
Citation:304 U.S. 458, 58 S.Ct. 1019, 82 L.Ed. 1461
Party Name:Johnson v. Zerbst
Case Date:May 23, 1938
Court:United States Supreme Court

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304 U.S. 458 (1938)

58 S.Ct. 1019, 82 L.Ed. 1461




No. 699

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 1938

Argued April 4, 1938




1. A person charged with crime in a federal court is entitled by the Sixth Amendment to the assistance of counsel for his defense. P. 462.

2. This right may be waived, but the waiver must be an intelligent one, and whether there was such must depend upon the particular facts and circumstances, including background, experience, and conduct of accused. P. 464.

3. It is a duty of a federal court in the trial of a criminal case to protect the right of the accused to counsel, and, if he has no counsel, to determine whether he has intelligently and competently waived the right. It would be fitting that such determination be made a matter of record. P. 465.

4. If the accused is not represented by counsel and has not competently and intelligently waived his constitutional right, the Sixth Amendment stands as a jurisdictional bar to a valid conviction and sentence depriving him of his life or his liberty. P. 468.

5. The question whether the assistance of counsel was intelligently and competently waived by the prisoner at his trial may be determined in habeas corpus proceedings on proofs aliunde. P. 467.

92 F.2d 748, reversed.

CERTIORARI, 303 U.S. 629, to review the affirmance of a judgment of the District Court discharging a writ of habeas corpus. See 13 F.Supp. 253.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, while imprisoned in a federal penitentiary, was denied habeas corpus by the District Court.1 Later,

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that court granted petitioner a second hearing, prompted by

the peculiar circumstances surrounding the case and the desire of the court to afford opportunity to present any additional facts and views which petitioner desired to present.

Upon consideration of the second petition, the court found that it did "not substantially differ from the" first, "and for the reasons stated in the decision in that case" the second petition was also denied.

Petitioner is serving sentence under a conviction in a United States District Court for possessing and uttering counterfeit [58 S.Ct. 1021] money. It appears from the opinion of the District Judge denying habeas corpus that he believed petitioner was deprived, in the trial court, of his constitutional right under the provision of the Sixth Amendment that "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."2 However, he held that proceedings depriving petitioner of his constitutional right to assistance of counsel were not sufficient

to make the trial void and justify its annulment in a habeas corpus proceeding, but that they constituted trial errors or irregularities which could only be corrected on appeal.

The Court of Appeals affirmed,3 and we granted certiorari due to the importance of the questions involved.4

The record discloses that:

Petitioner and one Bridwell were arrested in Charleston, South Carolina, November 21, 1934, charged with

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feloniously uttering and passing four counterfeit twenty-dollar Federal Reserve notes and possessing twenty-one such notes. Both were then enlisted men in the United States Marine Corps, on leave. They were bound over to await action of the United States Grand Jury, but were kept in jail due to inability to give bail. January 21, 1935, they were indicted; January 23, 1935, they were taken to court, and there first given notice of the indictment; immediately were arraigned, tried, convicted and sentenced that day to four and one-half years in the penitentiary, and January 25, were transported to the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta. While counsel had represented them in the preliminary hearings before the commissioner in which they -- some two months before their trial -- were bound over to the Grand Jury, the accused were unable to employ counsel for their trial. Upon arraignment, both pleaded not guilty, said that they had no lawyer, and -- in response to an inquiry of the court -- stated that they were ready for trial. They were then tried, convicted and sentenced, without assistance of counsel.

Both petitioners lived in distant cities of other states, and neither had relatives, friends, or acquaintances in Charleston. Both had little education, and were without funds. They testified that they had never been guilty of nor charged with any offense before, and there was no evidence in rebuttal of these statements.5

In the habeas corpus hearing, petitioner's evidence developed that no request was directed to the trial judge to appoint counsel, but that such request was made to the District Attorney, who replied that, in the State of trial (South Carolina), the court did not appoint counsel unless the defendant was charged with a capital crime. The District Attorney denied that petitioner made request

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to him for counsel or that he had indicated petitioner had no right to counsel. The Assistant District Attorney testified that Bridwell "cross-examined the witnesses"; and, in his opinion, displayed more knowledge of procedure than the normal layman would possess. He did not recall whether Bridwell addressed the jury or not, but the clerk of the trial court testified "that Mr. Johnson [Bridwell?] conducted his defence about as well as the average layman usually does in cases of a similar nature." Concerning what he said to the jury and his cross-examination of witnesses, Bridwell testified

I tried to speak to the jury after the evidence was in during my trial over in the Eastern District of South Carolina. I told the jury, "I don't consider myself a hoodlum as the District Attorney has made me out several times." I told the jury that I was not a native of New York as the District Attorney stated, but was from Mississippi, and only stationed for government service in New York. I only said fifteen or twenty words. I said I didn't think I was a hoodlum, and could not have been one of very long standing because they didn't keep them in the Marine Corps.

I objected to one witness' testimony. I didn't ask him any questions, I [58 S.Ct. 1022] only objected to his whole testimony. After the prosecuting attorney was finished with the witness, he said, "Your witness," and I got up and objected to the testimony on the grounds that it was all false, and the Trial Judge said any objection I had I would have to bring proof or disproof.

Reviewing the evidence on the petition for habeas corpus, the District Court said6 that, after trial, petitioner and Johnson

. . . were remanded to jail, where they asked the jailer to call a lawyer for them, but were not permitted to contact one. They did not, however, undertake to get any message to the judge.

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. . . January 25th, they were transported by automobile to the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Ga. arriving . . . the same day.

There, as is the custom, they were placed in isolation and so kept for sixteen days without being permitted to communicate with anyone except the officers of the institution, but they did see the officers daily. They made no request of the officers to be permitted to see a lawyer, nor did they ask the officers to present to the trial judge a motion for new trial or application for appeal or notice that they desired to move for a new trial or to take an appeal.

On May 15, 1935, petitioners filed applications for appeal which were denied because filed too late.

The " . . . time for filing a motion for new trial and for taking an appeal has been limited to three and five days."7

One. The Sixth Amendment guarantees that, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." This is one of the safeguards of the Sixth Amendment deemed necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty. Omitted from the Constitution as originally adopted, provisions of this and other Amendments were submitted by the first Congress convened under that Constitution as essential barriers against arbitrary or unjust deprivation of human rights. The Sixth Amendment stands as a constant admonition that, if the constitutional safeguards it provides be lost, justice will not "still be done."8 It embodies a realistic recognition of the obvious truth that the average defendant does not have the professional legal skill to protect

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himself when brought before a tribunal with power to take his life or liberty, wherein the prosecution is presented by experienced and learned counsel. That which is simple, orderly and necessary to the lawyer, to the untrained layman may appear intricate, complex and mysterious. Consistently with the wise policy of the Sixth Amendment and other parts of our fundamental charter, this Court has pointed to " . . . the humane policy of the modern criminal law . . ." which now provides that a defendant " . . . if he be poor, . . . may have counsel furnished him by the state . . . not infrequently . . . more able than the attorney for the state."9


. . . right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel, he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defence, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand...

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