309 U.S. 227 (1940), 195, Chambers v. Florida

Docket Nº:No.195
Citation:309 U.S. 227, 60 S.Ct. 472, 84 L.Ed. 716
Party Name:Chambers v. Florida
Case Date:February 12, 1940
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 227

309 U.S. 227 (1940)

60 S.Ct. 472, 84 L.Ed. 716





United States Supreme Court

Feb. 12, 1940

Argued January 4, 1940



1. Convictions of murder obtained in the state courts by use of coerced confessions are void under the clue process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 228.

2. This Court is not concluded by the finding of a jury that a confession by one convicted in a state court of murder was voluntary, but determines that question for itself from the evidence. P. 228.

3. Confessions of murder procured by repeated inquisitions of prisoners without friends or counselors present, and under circumstances calculated to inspire terror, held compulsory. Pp. 238-241.

136 Fla. 568; 187 So. 156, reversed.

CERTIORARI, 308 U.S. 541, to review convictions of murder upon the question whether confessions used in the trial were in violation of due process of law.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

[60 S.Ct. 473] MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The grave question presented by the petition for certiorari, granted in forma pauperis,1 is whether proceedings in which confessions were utilized, and which culminated in sentences of death upon four young negro men in the State of Florida, failed to afford the safeguard of that due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.2

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First. The State of Florida challenges our jurisdiction to look behind the judgments below, claiming that the issues of fact upon which petitioners base their claim that due process was denied them have been finally determined because passed upon by a jury. However, use by a State of an improperly obtained confession may constitute a denial of due process of law as guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment.3 Since petitioners have seasonably asserted the right under the federal Constitution to have their guilt or innocence of a capital crime determined without reliance upon confessions obtained by means

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proscribed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, we must determine independently whether petitioners' confessions were so obtained, by review of the facts upon which that issue necessarily turns.4

Second. The record shows --

About nine o'clock on the night of Saturday, May 13, 1933, Robert Darsey, an elderly white man, was robbed and murdered in Pompano, Florida, a small town in Broward County about twelve miles from Fort Lauderdale, the Count seat. The opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida affirming petitioners' conviction for this crime stated that "It was one of those crimes that induced an enraged community. . . ."5 And, as the dissenting judge pointed out,

The murder and robbery of the elderly Mr. Darsey . . . was a most dastardly and atrocious crime. It naturally aroused great and well justified public indignation.6

Between 9:30 and 10 o'clock after the murder, petitioner Charlie Davis was arrested, and, within the next twenty-four [60 S.Ct. 474] hours, from twenty-five to forty negroes living in the community, including petitioners Williamson, Chambers, and Woodward, were arrested without warrants and confined in the Broward County jail, at Fort Lauderdale. On the night of the crime, attempts to trail the murderers by bloodhounds brought J. T. Williams, a convict guard, into the proceedings. From then until confessions were obtained and petitioners were sentenced, he took a prominent part. About 11 P.M. on the following Monday, May 15, the sheriff and Williams took several of the imprisoned negroes, including Williamson and Chambers, to the Dade County jail at Miami. The

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sheriff testified that they were taken there because he felt a possibility of mob violence, and "wanted to give protection to every prisoner . . . in jail." Evidence of petitioners was that, on the way to Miami, a motorcycle patrolman drew up to the car in which the men were riding, and the sheriff "told the cop that he had some negroes that he -- [was] taking down to Miami to escape a mob." This statement was not denied by the sheriff in his testimony, and Williams did not testify at all; Williams apparently has now disappeared. Upon order of Williams, petitioner Williamson was kept in the death cell of the Dade County jail. The prisoners thus spirited to Miami were returned to the Fort Lauderdale jail the next day, Tuesday.

It is clear from the evidence of both the State and petitioners that from Sunday, May 14, to Saturday, May 20, the thirty to forty negro suspects were subjected to questioning and cross-questioning (with the exception that several of the suspects were in Dade County jail over one night). From the afternoon of Saturday, May 20, until sunrise of the 21st, petitioners and possibly one or two others underwent persistent and repeated questioning. The Supreme Court of Florida said the questioning "was in progress several days and all night before the confessions were secured," and referred to the last night as an "all-night vigil." The sheriff who supervised the procedure of continued interrogation testified that he questioned the prisoners "in the day time all the week," but did not question them during any night before the all-night vigil of Saturday, May 20, because, after having "questioned them all day . . . , [he] was tired." Other evidence of the State was "that the officers of Broward County were in that jail almost continually during the whole week questioning these boys, and other boys, in connection with this" case.

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The process of repeated questioning took place in the jailer's quarters on the fourth floor of the jail. During the week following their arrest and until their confessions were finally acceptable to the State's Attorney in the early dawn of Sunday, May 21st, petitioners and their fellow prisoners were led one at a time from their cells to the questioning room, quizzed, and returned to their cells to await another turn. So far as appears, the prisoners at no time during the week were permitted to see or confer with counsel or a single friend or relative. When carried singly from his cell and subjected to questioning, each found himself, a single prisoner, surrounded in a fourth floor jail room by four to ten men, the county sheriff, his deputies, a convict guard, and other white officers and citizens of the community.

The testimony is in conflict as to whether all four petitioners were continually threatened and physically mistreated until they finally, in hopeless desperation and fear of their lives, agreed to confess on Sunday morning just after daylight. Be that as it may, it is certain that, by Saturday, May 20th, five days of continued questioning had elicited no confession. Admittedly, a concentration of effort -- directed against a small number of prisoners including petitioners -- on the part of the questioners, principally the sheriff and Williams, the convict guard, began about 3:30 that Saturday afternoon. From that hour on, with only short intervals for food and rest for the questioners -- "They all stayed up all night." "They bring one of them at a time backwards and forwards . . . until they confessed." And Williams was present and participating that night, during the whole of which the jail cook served coffee and sandwiches to the men who "grilled" the prisoners.

Sometime in the early hours of Sunday, the 21st, probably about 2:30 A.M., Woodward apparently "broke"--

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as one of the state's witnesses put it -- after a fifteen or twenty minute period of questioning by [60 S.Ct. 475] Williams, the sheriff and the constable "one right after the other." The State's Attorney was awakened at his home, and called to the jail. He came, but was dissatisfied with the confession of Woodward which he took down in writing at that time, and said something like "tear this paper up, that isn't what I want, when you get something worthwhile, call me."7 This same State's Attorney conducted the state's case in the circuit court below and also made himself a witness, but did not testify as to why Woodward's

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first alleged confession [60 S.Ct. 476] was unsatisfactory to him. The sheriff did, however:

A. No, it wasn't false, part of it was true and part of it wasn't; Mr. Maire [the State's Attorney] said there wasn't enough. It wasn't clear enough.

* * * *

Q. . . . Was that voluntarily made at that time?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. It was voluntarily made that time?

A. Yes, sir.

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Q. You didn't consider it sufficient?

A. Mr. Maire.

Q. Mr. Maire told you that it wasn't sufficient, so you kept on questioning him until the time you got him to make a free and voluntary confession of other matters that he hadn't included in the first?

A. No sir, we questioned him there and we caught him in lies.

Q. Caught all of them telling lies?

A. Caught every one of them lying to us that night, yes, sir.

Q. Did you tell them they were lying?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Just how would you tell them that?

A. Just like I am talking to you.

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Q. You said "Jack, you told me a lie"?

A. Yes, sir.

After one week's constant denial of all guilt, petitioners "broke."

Just before sunrise, the state officials got something "worthwhile" from petitioners which the State's Attorney would "want"; again he was called; he came; in the presence of those who had carried on and witnessed the all-night questioning, he caused his questions and petitioners' answers to be stenographically reported. These are the confessions utilized by the State to obtain the judgments upon which petitioners were sentenced to death. No formal charges had been brought before the confessions. Two days thereafter, petitioners were indicted, were arraigned and Williamson and Woodward...

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