322 U.S. 143 (1944), 391, Ashcraft v. Tennessee

Docket Nº:No. 391
Citation:322 U.S. 143, 64 S.Ct. 921, 88 L.Ed. 1192
Party Name:Ashcraft v. Tennessee
Case Date:May 01, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court

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322 U.S. 143 (1944)

64 S.Ct. 921, 88 L.Ed. 1192




No. 391

United States Supreme Court

May 1, 1944

Argued February 28, 1944



1. Upon review here of a conviction of a defendant in a criminal case in a state court, it is the duty of this Court to make an independent examination of the defendant's claim that his conviction, alleged to have been obtained through the use in evidence of confessions coerced by law enforcement officers, was in violation of his rights under the Federal Constitution. P. 147.

2. An independent examination by this Court of the defendant's claim in such a case cannot be foreclosed by the finding of the state court, or the verdict of a jury, or both. P. 148.

3. The treatment of the alleged confessions by the two state courts, and the trial court's instructions to the jury in respect of the alleged confessions, make more important in this case an independent examination by this Court of the defendants' claims. P. 147.

4. Upon undisputed evidence, this Court concludes that, if the defendant Ashcraft made a confession, it was not voluntary, but compelled, and that his conviction, resting upon the alleged confession, must be set aside as in violation of the Federal Constitution. P. 153.

The uncontradicted evidence -- inter alia, that Ashcraft had been held incommunicado for thirty-six hours, during which time without

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sleep or rest, he had been interrogated by relay of officers and investigator -- showed a situation inherently coercive.

5. In making such disposition of cases as justice may require, this Court must consider any change, in fact, or in law, which has supervened since the judgment was entered. P. 156.

6. The connection of a codefendant having been sustained by the state court upon the assumption that Ashcraft's confession was properly admitted and his conviction valid, the judgment as to the codefendant is vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. P. 155.


CERTIORARI, 320 U.S. 728, to review the affirmance of convictions of two defendants tried jointly in the state court.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

About three o'clock on the morning of Thursday, June 5, 1941, Mrs. Zelma Ida Ashcraft got in her automobile at her [64 S.Ct. 922] home in Memphis, Tennessee, and set out on a trip to visit her mother's home in Kentucky. Late in the afternoon of the same day, her car was observed a few miles out of Memphis, standing on the wrong side of a road which she would likely have taken on her journey. Just off the road, in a slough, her lifeless body was found. On her head were cut places inflicted by blows sufficient to have caused her death. Petitioner Ware, age 20, a Negro, was indicted in a state court and found guilty of her murder. Petitioner Ashcraft, age 45, a white man, husband of the deceased, charged with having hired Ware to commit the murder, was tried jointly with Ware and convicted as an accessory before the fact. Both were sentenced to ninety-nine years in the state penitentiary.

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The Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed the convictions.

In applying to us for certiorari, Ware and Ashcraft urged that alleged confessions were used at their trial which had been extorted from them by state law enforcement officers in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that "solely and alone" on the basis of these confessions, they had been convicted. Their contentions raised a federal question which the record showed to be substantial, and we brought both cases here for review. Upon oral argument before this Court Tennessee's legal representatives conceded that the convictions could not be sustained without the confessions, but defended their use upon the ground that they were not compelled but were "freely and voluntarily made."

The record discloses that neither the trial court nor the Tennessee Supreme Court actually held as a matter of fact that petitioners' confessions were "freely and voluntarily made." The trial court heard evidence on the issue out of the jury's hearing, but did not itself determine from that evidence that the confessions were voluntary. Instead, it overruled Ashcraft's objection to the use of his alleged confession with the statement that,

This Court is not able to hold, as a matter of law, that reasonable minds might not differ on the question of whether or not that alleged confession was voluntarily obtained.

And it likewise overruled Ware's objection to use of his alleged confession, stating that

the reasonable minds of twelve men might . . . differ as to . . . whether Ware's confession was voluntary, and . . . therefore, that is a question of fact for the jury to pass on.1

Nor did the

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State Supreme Court review the evidence pertaining to the confessions and affirmatively hold them voluntary. In sustaining the petitioners' convictions, one Justice dissenting, it went no further than to point out that,

The trial judge . . . held . . . he could not say that the confessions were not voluntarily made and, therefore, permitted them to go to the jury,

and to declare that it, likewise, was "unable to say that the confessions were not freely and voluntarily made."2

If, therefore, the question of the voluntariness of the two confessions was actually decided at all it was by the jury. And the jury was charged generally on the subject of the two confessions as follows:

[64 S.Ct. 923]

I further charge you that, if verbal or written statements made by the defendants freely and voluntarily and without fear of punishment or hope of reward, have been proven to you in this case, you may take them into consideration with all of the other facts and circumstances in the case. . . . In statements made at the time of the arrest, you may take into consideration the condition of the minds of the prisoners owing to their arrest and

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whether they were influenced by motives of hope or fear, to make the statements. Such a statement is competent evidence against the defendant who makes it and is not competent evidence against the other defendant. . . . You cannot consider it for any purpose against the other defendant.

Concerning Ashcraft's alleged confession this general charge constituted the sole instruction to the jury.3 But with regard to Ware's alleged confession the jury further was instructed:

It is his [Ware's] further theory that he was induced by the fear of violence at the hands of a mob and by fear of the officers of the law to confess his guilt of the crime charged against him, but that such confession was false, and that he had nothing whatsoever to do with, and no knowledge of, the alleged crime. If you believe the theory of the defendant, Ware, . . . it is your duty to acquit him.

Having submitted the two alleged confessions to the jury in this manner, the trial court instructed the jury that:

What the proof may show you, if anything, that the defendants have said against themselves, the law presumes to be true, but anything the defendants have said in their own behalf, you are not obliged to believe. . . .

This treatment of the confessions by the two state courts, the manner of the confessions' submission to the jury, and the emphasis upon the great weight to be given confessions make all the more important the kind of "independent examination" of petitioners' claims which, in

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any event, we are bound to make. Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 237-238. Our duty to make that examination could not have been "foreclosed by the finding of a court, or the verdict of a jury, or both." Id. We proceed therefore to consider the evidence relating to the circumstances out of which the alleged confessions came.

First, as to Ashcraft. Ashcraft was born on an Arkansas farm. At the age of eleven, he left the farm and became a farm hand working for others. Years later, he gravitated into construction work, finally becoming a skilled dragline and steam-shovel operator. Uncontradicted evidence in the record was that he had acquired for himself "an excellent reputation." In 1929, he married the deceased Zelma Ida Ashcraft. Childless, they accumulated, apparently through Ashcraft's earnings, a very modest amount of jointly held property including bank accounts and an equity in the home in which they lived. The Supreme Court of Tennessee found "nothing to show but what the home life of Ashcraft and the deceased was pleasant and happy." Several of Mrs. Ashcraft's friends who were guests at the Ashcraft home on the night before her tragic death testified that both husband and wife appeared to be in a happy frame of mind.

The officers first talked to Ashcraft about 6 P. M. on the day of his wife's murder as he was returning home from work. Informed by them of the tragedy, he was taken to an undertaking establishment to identify her body which previously had been identified only by a driver's license. From there he was taken to the county jail where he conferred with the officers until about 2 A.M. No clues of ultimate value came from this conference, though it did result in the officers' holding and interrogating the Ashcrafts' maid and several of her friends. During the following week, the officers made extensive investigations in Ashcraft's neighborhood and

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elsewhere [64 S.Ct. 924] and further conferred with Ashcraft himself on several occasions, but none of these activities produced tangible evidence pointing to the identity of the murderer.

Then, early in the evening of Saturday, June 14, the officers came to Ashcraft's home and "took him into custody." In the words of the Tennessee Supreme Court,


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