314 U.S. 219 (1941), Lisenba v. California

Citation:314 U.S. 219, 62 S.Ct. 280, 86 L.Ed. 166
Party Name:Lisenba v. California
Case Date:December 08, 1941
Court:United States Supreme Court

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314 U.S. 219 (1941)

62 S.Ct. 280, 86 L.Ed. 166




United States Supreme Court

Dec. 8, 1941



1. The claim that discrimination by police officers in treating some persons illegally and others legally violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment held unsupported. P. 226.

2. In the sentencing of accomplices, the practice of taking into consideration their aid to the State as witnesses involves no denial of due process to a convicted confederate. P. 227.

3. Whether the testimony of an accomplice in this case was corroborated as required by the state law was a question for decision by the courts of the State. P. 227.

4. Where it was alleged as a basis of release by habeas corpus in a state court that testimony of an accomplice leading to the conviction of the petitioner was known by the prosecuting officers to be false and was induced by their promises and threats, and affidavits of the accomplice, made several years after the trial, were produced to substantiate the allegation, the appraisal of the affidavits with other conflicting evidence in the record was a matter for the state courts. P. 226.

5. The admissibility in a murder trial of evidence of another similar crime, to establish intent, design and system on the part of the accused, is left by the Fourteenth Amendment to be determined by the state law and the state courts. P. 227.

6. Action of state courts in denying a continuance to an accused in a criminal trial held not reviewable by this Court under the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 228.

7. Where it was part of the State's case that live rattlesnakes were to be used in pursuance of a conspiracy to murder, and two such snakes were brought to the courtroom to be identified by a witness who sold them to one of the conspirators, the propriety of admitting such evidence was for the state courts to decide; the claim that its introduction made the trial so unfair as to deny due process of law, is unsound. P. 228.

8. The fact that a person accused of a state offense was, some time before making a confession, subjected to restraints and other acts of state officers which were in themselves breaches of the state law and possible violations of due process, may be relevant to the question

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whether the use of the confession at his trial was a denial of due process, but is not conclusive of that issue. P. 235.

9. The fact that a confession has been conclusively adjudged by the state courts to be admissible in evidence under the state law does not answer the question whether, in view of the circumstances in which it was made, its use at the trial was a denial of due process. P. 236.

10. The state rule against admitting a confession which was not voluntarily made seeks to exclude false evidence. The aim of due process in forbidding its use is to prevent fundamental unfairness of using such evidence, whether true or false. The criteria for decision in the one case or the other may or may not be the same, according to the circumstances. P. 236.

11. To determine a claim that due process was violated by the use in evidence in a state court of a confession alleged to have been obtained by coercion or promises, this Court must make an independent examination of the record. P. 237.

12. The Court is unable to find that the confessions in this case were induced by coercion or promises, and that their use in evidence therefore vitiated the trial, the evidence being conflicting and the state tribunals having found that the confessions were free and voluntary, and were therefore admissible under the state law, and the state supreme court having also found that their use conformed to due process. P. 238.

13. Where a prisoner held incommunicado is subjected to questioning by officers for long periods, and deprived of the advice of counsel, the Court will scrutinize the record with care to determine whether the use of his confession was contrary to due process. P. 240.

14. On the facts, and in the light of the findings in the state courts, this Court cannot hold that the illegal conduct in which the law enforcement officers of California indulged by the prolonged questioning of the prisoner before arraignment and in the absence of counsel, or their later questioning coerced the confessions the use of which is complained of as an infringement of due process. P. 240.

89 P.2d 39; 14 Cal.2d 403, 94 P.2d 569, affirmed.

CERTIORARI, 311 U.S. 617, to review the affirmance of a sentence for murder and a judgment denying the writ of habeas corpus. The cases were argued together at the last term, and the judgments were affirmed by an

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equally divided Court, 313 U.S. 537. A petition for rehearing before a full Court was granted; the affirmances were set aside, and the cases were restored to the docket for reargument, 313 U.S. 597.

ROBERTS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death, in the Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County. The Supreme Court of California affirmed the judgment March 21, 1939, two judges dissenting.1 A rehearing was granted, the case was reargued, and, October 5, 1939, the decision was reaffirmed and the former opinion adopted and amplified, two justices dissenting.2 No question arising under the Constitution of the United States had been raised or decided. In a second petition for rehearing, the petitioner for the first time asserted that his conviction violated the Fourteenth Amendment. November 3, 1939, the Court ruled: "The petition for a rehearing herein is denied."

The Chief Justice of the State allowed an appeal, November 6, 1939, and, November 8, 1939, executed a certificate in which he enumerated the constitutional questions presented by the second petition for rehearing; stated that the court entertained the petition, and explicitly overruled each of the contentions made therein; certified

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that the decision denying rehearing

is to be interpreted and considered as holding against the appellant's contention that his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States . . . were violated,

and concluded: "It is ordered that this certificate be filed in this court and made a part of the record on appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States." On the record so made, this Court has jurisdiction to review the judgment.3

The appellant did not draw in question the constitutional validity of any statute of California. We therefore dismissed the appeal,4 but, treating the papers as a petition for certiorari,5 we granted the writ. This case is No. 4.

October 31, 1939, the petitioner prayed the Supreme Court of California for a writ of habeas corpus on the theory that his trial and conviction had deprived him of his life without due process. He submitted affidavits of one Hope, who had turned state's evidence against him. In these, Hope asserted that his testimony was false, had been coerced by threats, and induced by promises of leniency and by fraud.

November 9, 1939, habeas corpus was denied, without prejudice. The Chief Justice of California allowed an appeal and made, and ordered filed of record, a certificate respecting the constitutional questions presented and decided by the court, similar to [62 S.Ct. 284] that entered in No. 4. We followed the same course as in No. 4, and the case is here as No. 5.

The appeals were presented in forma pauperis. The typewritten record is of great length. In the belief that

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only by briefs and oral argument, and on a record printed by the court, could proper consideration and decision be had of certain apparently important questions presented, we issued the writs. The cases were argued at the October, 1940, term, and the judgments were affirmed by a divided Court. A petition for rehearing before a full Court was granted, the affirmances set aside, and the causes set for rehearing at this term.6

The petitioner, who used, and was commonly known by, the name of Robert S. James (and will be so called), and one Hope were indicted, May 6, 1936, for the murder of James' wife on August 5, 1935. Hope pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. James pleaded not guilty, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The trial was a long one, in which the petitioner made objections to rulings and to the charge which raise questions of state law decided by the opinion below with which we have no concern. We shall refer only to so much of the evidence as bears upon the constitutional questions open here.

The State's theory is that the petitioner conceived the plan of marrying, insuring his wife's life by policies providing double indemnity for accidental death, killing her in a manner to give the appearance of accident, and collecting double indemnity.

James employed Mary E. Busch as a manicurist in his barber shop in March, 1935, and, about a month later, went through a marriage ceremony with her which was not legal, as he then had a living wife. While they were affianced, insurance was negotiated on her life, with James as beneficiary. Upon the annulment of the earlier marriage, a lawful ceremony was performed. The petitioner made sure that the policies were not annulled by the fact that, when they were issued, Mary had not been his lawful wife.

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The allegation is that James enlisted one Hope in a conspiracy to do away with Mary and collect and divide the insurance on her life. Hope testified that, at James' instigation, he procured rattlesnakes which were to bite and kill Mary; that they appeared not to be sufficiently venomous for the purpose, but he ultimately purchased others and delivered them to James; that James, on August 4, 1935, blindfolded his wife's eyes, tied her to a table, had Hope bring one of the snakes into the...

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