337 U.S. 241 (1949), 671, Williams v. New York

Docket Nº:No. 671
Citation:337 U.S. 241, 69 S.Ct. 1079, 93 L.Ed. 1337
Party Name:Williams v. New York
Case Date:June 06, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 241

337 U.S. 241 (1949)

69 S.Ct. 1079, 93 L.Ed. 1337



New York

No. 671

United States Supreme Court

June 6, 1949

Argued April 21, 1949



The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require that a person convicted after a fair trial be confronted with and permitted to cross-examine witnesses as to his prior criminal record considered by the judge in accordance with a state statute in determining what sentence to impose pursuant to broad discretion vested in him under state law -- even when the jury recommends life imprisonment and the judge imposes a death sentence. Pp. 242-252.

(a) It has long been the practice to permit the sentencing judge to exercise a wide discretion as to the sources and types of information used to assist him in determining the sentence to be imposed within the limits fixed by law. P. 246.

(b) Modern concepts individualizing punishment have made it all the more necessary that a sentencing judge not be denied an opportunity to obtain pertinent information by a requirement of rigid adherence to restrictive rules of evidence properly applicable to the trial. Pp. 246-249.

(c) To deprive the sentencing judge of information contained in reports of probation officers would undermine modern penological procedural policies that have been cautiously adopted throughout the nation after careful consideration and experimentation. Pp. 249-250

(d) In considering the sentence to be imposed after conviction, the sentencing judge is not restricted to information received in open court. Pp. 250-251.

(e) A different result is not required when a death sentence is imposed. Pp. 251-252.

298 N.Y. 803, 83 N.E.2d 698, affirmed.

After a fair trial, appellant was convicted of murder in the first degree and the jury recommended life imprisonment. After considering information as to his previous criminal record without permitting him to confront or cross-examine the witnesses on that subject, the trial

Page 242

judge sentenced him to death. The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed. 298 N.Y. 803, 83 N.E.2d 698. On appeal to this Court, affirmed, p. 252.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

A jury in a New York state court found appellant guilty of murder in the first degree.1 The jury recommended life imprisonment, but the trial judge imposed sentence of death.2 In giving his reasons for imposing the death sentence, the [69 S.Ct. 1081] judge discussed in open court the evidence upon which the jury had convicted, stating that this evidence had been considered in the light of additional information obtained through the court's "Probation Department, and through other sources." Consideration of

Page 243

this additional information was pursuant to § 482 of New York Criminal Code, which provides:

. . . Before rendering judgment or pronouncing sentence, the court shall cause the defendant's previous criminal record to be submitted to it, including any reports that may have been made as a result of a mental, phychiatric [sic] or physical examination of such person, and may seek any information that will aid the court in determining the proper treatment of such defendant.

The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed the conviction and sentence over the contention that, as construed and applied, the controlling penal statutes are in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States

in that the sentence of death was based upon information supplied by witnesses with whom the accused had not been confronted and as to whom he had no opportunity for cross-examination or rebuttal. . . .

298 N.Y. 803, 804, 83 N.E.2d 698. Because the statutes were sustained over this constitutional challenge, the case is here on appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2).

The narrow contention here makes it unnecessary to set out the facts at length. The record shows a carefully conducted trial lasting more than two weeks, in which appellant was represented by three appointed lawyers who conducted his defense with fidelity and zeal. The evidence proved a wholly indefensible murder committed by a person engaged in a burglary. The judge instructed the jury that, if it returned a verdict of guilty as charged, without recommendation for life sentence, "The Court must impose the death penalty," but, if such recommendation was made, "the Court may impose a life sentence." The judge went on to emphasize that "the Court is not bound to accept your recommendation."

Page 244

About five weeks after the verdict of guilty with recommendation of life imprisonment, and after a statutory pre-sentence investigation report to the judge, the defendant was brought to court to be sentenced. Asked what he had to say, appellant protested his innocence. After each of his three lawyers had appealed to the court to accept the jury's recommendation of a life sentence, the judge gave reasons why he felt that the death sentence should be imposed. He narrated the shocking details of the crime as shown by the trial evidence, expressing his own complete belief in appellant's guilt. He stated that the pre-sentence investigation revealed many material facts concerning appellant's background which, though relevant to the question of punishment, could not properly have been brought to the attention of the jury in its consideration of the question of guilt. He referred to the experience appellant "had had on thirty other burglaries in and about the same vicinity" where the murder had been committed. The appellant had not been convicted of these burglaries, although the judge had information that he had confessed to some and had been identified as the perpetrator of some of the others. The judge also referred to certain activities of appellant as shown by the probation report that indicated appellant possessed "a morbid sexuality," and classified him as a "menace to society." The accuracy of the statements made by the judge as to appellant's background and past practices were not challenged by appellant or his counsel, nor was the judge asked to disregard any of them or to afford [69 S.Ct. 1082] appellant a chance to refute or discredit any of them by cross-examination or otherwise.

The case presents a serious and difficult question. The question relates to the rules of evidence applicable to the manner in which a judge may obtain information to guide him in the imposition of sentence upon an already convicted defendant. Within limits fixed by statutes,

Page 245

New York judges are given a broad discretion to decide the type and extent of punishment for convicted defendants. Here, for example, the judge's discretion was to sentence to life imprisonment or death. To aid a judge in exercising this discretion intelligently, the New York procedural policy encourages him to consider information about the convicted person's past life, health, habits, conduct, and mental and moral propensities. The sentencing judge may consider such information even though obtained outside the courtroom from persons whom a defendant has not been permitted to confront or cross-examine. It is the consideration of information obtained by a sentencing judge in this manner that is the basis for appellant's broad constitutional challenge to the New York statutory policy.

Appellant urges that the New York statutory policy is in irreconcilable conflict with the underlying philosophy of a second procedural policy grounded in the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That policy as stated in In Re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 273, is in part that no person shall be tried and convicted of an offense unless he is given reasonable notice of the charges against him and is afforded an opportunity to examine adverse witnesses.3 That the due process clause does provide these salutary and time-tested protections where the question for consideration is the guilt of a defendant seems entirely clear from the genesis and historical evolution of the clause. See, e.g., Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 236-237, and authorities cited in note 10.

Page 246

Tribunals passing on the guilt of a defendant always have been hedged in by strict evidentiary procedural limitations.4 But both before and since the American colonies became a nation, courts in this country and in England practiced a policy under which a sentencing judge could exercise a wide discretion in the sources and types of evidence used to assist him in determining the kind the extent of punishment to be imposed within limits fixed by law.5 Out-of-court affidavits have been used frequently, and, of course, in the smaller communities, sentencing judges naturally have in mind their knowledge of the personalities and backgrounds of convicted offenders.6 A recent manifestation of the historical latitude allowed sentencing judges appears in Rule 32 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. That rule provides for consideration by federal judges of reports made by probation officers containing information about a convicted defendant, including such information "as may be helpful in imposing sentence [69 S.Ct. 1083] or in granting probation or in the correctional treatment of the defendant. . . ."7 In addition to the historical basis for different evidentiary rules governing trial and sentencing procedures, there are sound practical reasons for the distinction. In a trial before verdict, the issue is whether a defendant is guilty of having engaged in certain criminal conduct of which he has been specifically accused. Rules of evidence

Page 247

have been fashioned for criminal trials which narrowly confine the trial contest to evidence that is strictly relevant to the particular offense charged. These rules rest in part on a necessity to prevent a time-consuming and confusing trial of collateral issues....

To continue reading