328 U.S. 211 (1946), 631, Woods v. Nierstheimer

Docket Nº:No. 631
Citation:328 U.S. 211, 66 S.Ct. 996, 90 L.Ed. 1177
Party Name:Woods v. Nierstheimer
Case Date:May 20, 1946
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 211

328 U.S. 211 (1946)

66 S.Ct. 996, 90 L.Ed. 1177




No. 631

United States Supreme Court

May 20, 1946

Argued May 2, 1946




More than five years after his conviction for murder on an alleged plea of guilty, petitioner petitioned two Illinois courts for writs of habeas corpus, alleging circumstances which, if true, were sufficient to show that he had been convicted without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Each court denied the petition without an opinion on the ground that it failed to state a cause of action. These orders were not appealable to a higher state court. It appeared that the proper remedy under Illinois law was not a writ of habeas corpus, but a statutory substitute for a writ of error coram nobis, in respect of which there was a five-year limitation.


1. Since the orders denying writs of habeas corpus were not appealable to a higher state court, this Court is authorized to review them if they are based on decisions of federal questions. P. 213.

2. Since it appears that the petitions for writs of habeas corpus probably were denied because that was not the proper remedy under Illinois law, the judgments do not clearly present federal questions. P. 216.

3. The situation is not altered by the fact that the five-year statute of limitations on the proper remedy has expired, since it is not known whether the state courts will construe the statute as depriving petitioner of his right to challenge a judgment rendered in violation of constitutional guaranties. P. 216.

4. Whether petitioner will be denied any remedy in the state courts will not be known until they have passed on a petition for the proper remedy under state law. P. 216.

5. If the State should at all times deny all remedies to persons imprisoned in violation of the Constitution, the federal courts would be available to provide a remedy to correct such wrongs. P. 217.


Page 212

Petitioner was denied writs of habeas corpus by state courts from which there was no appeal. This Court granted certiorari. 327 U.S. 772. Dismissed, p. 217.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1940, the petitioner was indicted for murder in the Criminal Court of Cook County, Illinois. Adjudged to be guilty on an alleged plea of guilty, he was sentenced to serve ninety-nine years in the state penitentiary. In 1945, he filed two identical petitions for habeas corpus, one in the Criminal Court of Cook County and the other in the Randolph County Circuit Court. In summary, the allegations of these petitions were:

On March 8th or 9th, 1940, Chicago policemen came to petitioner's home, accused him of murder, and arrested him. For a period of four days, these policemen subjected him to mistreatment in an effort to force him to confess to the crime of murder. The policemen allegedly abused him, beat him with their hands, with blackjacks, and with clubs. At the end of four days, under threat of instant death if he failed to do so, petitioner signed a paper which he later discovered to be a confession. Petitioner averred that he was unable to employ counsel, that he had no counsel, and that he did not consult with counsel during the next two months while he was confined to jail. According to the allegations, petitioner was brought into court at the end of that period, and a public defender appeared as

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his counsel; but the public defender declined to permit petitioner to explain the circumstances surrounding the confession. Moreover, despite petitioner's repeated assertion of his innocence, the defender allegedly entered a plea of guilty on behalf of petitioner. The allegations further assert that the public defender and the state's attorney threatened petitioner by telling him that he would burn in the electric chair [66 S.Ct. 998] if he did not keep his mouth shut, and that, despite these threats, petitioner pleaded not guilty, and never did at any time consent to the guilty plea which is the basis for his ninety-nine year sentence.

Petitioner's contention before the two trial courts was that a judgment and sentence under these circumstances amounted to a denial of due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Randolph County Circuit Court denied petitioner's application for habeas corpus "for want of jurisdiction and failure to state a cause of action." The Cook County Criminal Court granted the state's motion to dismiss, made on the ground that the petition on its face failed to state a cause of action. In neither court was petitioner afforded an opportunity to offer evidence to prove his allegations. Neither court wrote an opinion explaining its order. Since Illinois does not provide for appellate review of an order denying a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the orders here involved were entered by the highest courts of the state that could have entered them. See White v. Ragen, 324 U.S. 760. This Court is consequently authorized to review these orders if they are based on decisions of federal questions. Tucker v....

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