346 U.S. 156 (1953), 391, Stein v. New York

Docket Nº:No. 391
Citation:346 U.S. 156, 73 S.Ct. 1077, 97 L.Ed. 1522
Party Name:Stein v. New York
Case Date:June 15, 1953
Court:United States Supreme Court

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346 U.S. 156 (1953)

73 S.Ct. 1077, 97 L.Ed. 1522



New York

No. 391

United States Supreme Court

June 15, 1953

Argued December 18, 1952



In a New York state court, a jury found the three petitioners guilty of murder, and they were sentenced to death. The murder allegedly was committed while petitioners, and an accomplice who turned state's evidence, were engaged in an armed holdup. The evidence at the trial included separate written confessions by two of the petitioners. Each written confession implicated all three petitioners, and all objected to introduction of each confession on the ground that it was coerced. The trial court denied a motion by the third petitioner that, if the confessions were admitted, all reference to him be stricken from them. The court heard evidence in the presence of the jury as to the issue of coercion, and left determination of that issue to the jury, which rendered a general verdict of guilty. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion.

Held: There was no violation of the Fourteenth Amendment in the proceedings, and the judgments are affirmed. Pp. 159-197.

1. Petitioners were not denied a fair hearing on the coercion issue. Pp. 170-179.

(a) The Fourteenth Amendment cannot be construed as allowing petitioners to testify to their coercion by the police without becoming subject to any cross-examination. Pp. 174-176.

(b) In the trial of a coercion issue, as of every other issue, when the prosecution has made a case to go to the jury, an accused must choose between the disadvantage from silence and that from testifying. P. 177.

(c) The Fourteenth Amendment does not forbid jury trial of the issue whether a confession was coerced; nor does it forbid its submission to a jury tentatively and with proper instructions along with the issue of guilt, although a general verdict of guilty

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does not disclose the jury's decision on the issue of coercion. Pp. 177-179.

2. On the record in this case, it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment if the jury resolved that the confessions were admissible as a basis for conviction. Pp. 179-188.

(a) When the issue as to whether confessions were coerced has been fairly tried and reviewed by the courts of a State, and there is no indication that constitutional standards of judgment have been disregarded, this Court will accept the state's determination of the issue, in the absence of impeachment by conceded facts. Pp. 180-182.

(b) Upon the evidence in this case, the state courts could properly find that the confessions were not obtained by physical force or threats. Pp. 182-184.

(c) Upon the evidence in this case, the state courts could properly find that the confessions were not obtained by psychological coercion. Pp. 184-186.

(d) The illegal delay in the arraignment of petitioners did not alone require rejection of the confessions under the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 186-188.

3. If the jury rejected the confessions, it could constitutionally base a conviction on other sufficient evidence. Pp. 188-194.

(a) There was no constitutional error in the trial court's refusal of petitioners' request for instruction to the jury that, if it found the confessions to have been coerced, it must return a verdict of acquittal. Pp. 188-193.

(b) The submission of a confession to a state jury tentatively and under proper instructions for judgment of the coercion issue does not preclude a conviction on other sufficient evidence if it rejects the confession. P. 190.

(c) The other evidence of petitioners' guilt, consisting of direct testimony of the surviving victim and of a well corroborated accomplice, as well as incriminating circumstances unexplained, is such that, apart from the confessions, it could not be held constitutionally or legally insufficient to warrant the jury verdict. Pp. 190-192.

(d) The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact a rigid exclusionary rule of evidence, rather than a guarantee against conviction on inherently untrustworthy evidence. Pp. 192-193.

(e) Whatever may have been the grounds of the New York Court of Appeals' affirmance of the judgments in this case, the

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decision here is based not upon the ground of harmless error, but upon the ground that there was no constitutional error. Pp. 193194.

4. As to the third petitioner's objections relating to the admissibility of the confessions to which he was not a party, there was no constitutional error such as would justify setting aside his conviction. Pp. 194-196.

(a) The holding that it was permissible for the state courts to find that the confessions were voluntary takes away the support for this objection in this Court. P. 194.

(b) In the light of the other testimony in the case, the deletion of this petitioner's name from the confessions would not have helped him. P. 194.

(c) This petitioner's rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were not infringed by the fact that he was unable to cross-examine the confessors. P. 195.

(d) The hearsay evidence rule, with all its subtleties, anomalies and ramifications, is not embraced by the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 196.

(e) That the methods adopted by the New York courts to protect this petitioner against any disadvantage from the use of the confessions may not have been the most effective conceivable does not render them violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 196.

5. On the record in this case, there is no justification for reading the Fourteenth Amendment to deny the State the power to hold these petitioners guilty. Pp. 196-197.

303 N.Y. 856, 104 N.E.2d 917, affirmed.

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JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners were found guilty of felony murder1 by a jury in Westchester County, New York, and sentenced to death. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion.2 We granted certiorari, because of questions raised by use of two confessions.3

The trial lasted over seven weeks, and the record runs to more than 3,000 pages. Evidence proffered and heard, subject to rejection or acceptance in the judgment of the jury, included two written confessions by petitioners Cooper and Stein, together with testimony as to their incidental oral confessions and admissions. Each written confession implicated all three defendants, and all objected to introduction of each confession on the ground that it was coerced. Wissner further moved as to each that, if Cooper's and Stein's confessions were admitted, all reference to him be stricken from them. T he trial court heard evidence in the presence of the jury as to the issue of coercion, and left determination of the question

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to the jury. Petitioners claim that such use of these confessions creates a constitutional infirmity which requires this Court to set aside the conviction.


The main office of Reader's Digest is thirty-one miles from New York City, in the relatively rural area of northern Westchester County, near the town of Pleasantville. From this secluded headquarters, a truck several times each day makes a run to and from town. On April 3, 1950, William Waterbury was driver of the 2:50 p.m. trip into Pleasantville. He picked up Andrew Petrini, a fellow employee, and various bags containing mail, about $5,000 in cash, and about $35,000 in checks, and started down the lonely country roads to town. Neither was armed. After a few hundred yards, Waterbury was cut off and halted by another truck that had been meandering slowly in front of him. He observed a man wearing a false nose and [73 S.Ct. 1081] eyeglasses and with a revolver in his hand running toward him. After an unsuccessful attempt to open the door, the assailant fired one shot into Petrini's head. Waterbury was then ordered into the back of the truck where another man tied him up. His captors took the bag containing the money and checks and abandoned the truck on a side road with Waterbury bound and gagged therein. A few minutes later, he was released by a passer-by and had Petrini hurried to the hospital, where he died shortly from the effects of a .38 revolver bullet lodged in his skull.

Near the scene of the crime, police found the abandoned truck used by the killers to block the way of Waterbury. It was learned to be the property of Spring Auto Rental Co., on New York's lower East Side, and at the time of the murder to have been out on hire to a man who had rented the same truck on three prior occasions and who each time had identified himself by producing

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New York driver's license No. 1434549, issued to W. W. Comins, of 228 West 47th Street, New York City. The address turned out to be a hotel and the name fictitious. However, the police managed to establish that the license had been procured by one William Cooper.

It is more than a figure of speech to say that William Cooper had an ironclad alibi: at the time of this crime, he was serving a sentence in a federal penitentiary. Suspicion attached to members of his family. Nearly two months ran on with no solution of the crime, however, until, toward the end of May or the beginning of June, when police learned that William's brother, petitioner Calman Cooper, had served a sentence in federal prison where he was a "working partner" and chess-playing buddy of one Brassett, who was serving time for having rifled mails addressed to the Reader's Digest while working in Pleasantville. It appeared that, during their prison association, Brassett had told Calman Cooper of the opportunity awaiting at Reader's Digest for an enterprising and clever robber.

On June 5, 1950, police arranged for Arthur Jeppeson, who had rented the Spring truck to "W. W. Comins," to be on a street in New York City where they expected Calman Cooper to pass. Jeppeson testified on the trial that Cooper recognized him and said to him that "this truck that he...

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