356 U.S. 390 (1958), 88, Thomas v. Arizona

Docket Nº:No. 88
Citation:356 U.S. 390, 78 S.Ct. 885, 2 L.Ed.2d 863
Party Name:Thomas v. Arizona
Case Date:May 19, 1958
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 390

356 U.S. 390 (1958)

78 S.Ct. 885, 2 L.Ed.2d 863




No. 88

United States Supreme Court

May 19, 1958

Argued March 5, 1958




Contending that his state court conviction of murder was obtained by use of a coerced confession in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, petitioner applied to a Federal District Court for a writ of habeas corpus. The writ was denied without a hearing after review of the entire record. Petitioner claimed that his confession was coerced by fear of lynching. At the time of his arrest, he was lassoed around the neck, and thereafter around either the shoulder or neck by one and then another local rancher, neither of whom was officially connected with the Sheriff's posse. At the first roping, he was jerked a few steps in the direction of the Sheriff's car and the nearest trees, 200 yards away; the second roping occurred soon thereafter at the place where another Negro, whom petitioner had accused of the crime, was apprehended. This time he was pulled to his knees. On both occasions, the Sheriff immediately removed the rope and ordered the rancher to desist. The confession in issue was made 20 hours later, when petitioner was brought before a Justice of the Peace for arraignment. The latter read the complaint to petitioner and advised him of his rights, but petitioner declared that he was guilty, did not want a lawyer, and had killed the woman. During this 20-hour interval, petitioner stoutly denied his guilt and attempted to implicate another suspect, who subsequently was found to have an unrefuted alibi. In that time, no violence or threat of violence occurred, no promises were made, and no intimation of mob action existed. Petitioner was then 27 years of age, a veteran, of normal intelligence, and possessed of an extensive criminal record. Despite his determination that this confession was voluntary, the trial judge found that two later confessions by petitioner were procured by fear of lynching, and held them inadmissible. The first confession was distinguished on the grounds (1) that it was made in the sanctuary of a court of law, and (2) that it was made in the presence of the Sheriff who protected petitioner at the roping affair.

Held: the judgment is affirmed. Pp. 391-104.

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(a) On all the undisputed facts here, petitioner's confession before the Justice of the Peace is not shown to be the product of fear, duress or coercion. Pp. 393-402.

(b) This Court's determination of the character of the first confession is neither controlled by the State's decision that later confessions were involuntary nor limited to those factors by which the State differentiated the first from the later confessions. Pp. 400-401.

(c) Petitioner's reliance on certain disputed facts is misplaced, for this Court's inquiry is limited to the undisputed portions of the record when either the trial judge or the jury, with superior opportunity to gauge the truthfulness of witnesses' testimony, has found the confession to be voluntary. Pp. 402-403.

(d) The District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying the writ of habeas corp without a hearing. P. 403.

(e) The District Court did not err in considering a transcript which was filed as an affidavit before that Court, despite the fact that it was not part of the trial record. Pp. 403-404.

235 F.2d 775, affirmed.

CLARK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner has been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by an Arizona court for the killing of one Janie Miscovich. He asks this Court to reverse his conviction on the ground that a confession received in evidence at his trial was coerced by fear of lynching, in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The victim, proprietor of a grocery store in Kansas Settlement, Arizona, was killed while tending her store on the evening of March 16, 1953. No one witnessed the

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crime, but strong circumstantial evidence indicated that it occurred between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., and that petitioner was responsible. He was arrested the next day under circumstances which lend credence to his assertion of a "putative lynching." The confession at issue, however, was not made until the day following the arrest, when he was taken before a Justice of the Peace for preliminary examination.

After an initial determination of voluntariness, the trial judge in the Superior Court of Cochise County, Arizona, submitted the issue of coercion to the jury under instructions to ignore the confession as evidence unless it was found entirely voluntary. A general verdict of guilty was returned by the jury and accepted by the trial court. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed, 78 Ariz. 52, 275 P.2d 408, and we denied certiorari.1 350 U.S. 950 (1956). Petitioner then made application for habeas corpus in [78 S.Ct. 887] the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. After reviewing the entire record, the District Court denied the writ without a hearing. The Court of Appeals

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affirmed, 235 F.2d 775, and we granted certiorari because of the seriousness of petitioner's allegations under the Due Process Clause. 352 U.S. 1024. An exhaustive review of the record, however, impels us to conclude that petitioner's confession was "the expression of free choice," Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 53 (1949), and not the product of fear, duress, or coercion.

The prosecution's use of a coerced confession first led to this Court's reversal of a state conviction in Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936). Our resolution of similar claims in subsequent cases makes clear that

the question whether there has been a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by the introduction of an involuntary confession is one on which we must make an independent determination on the undisputed facts.

Malinski v. New York, 324 U.S. 401, 404 (1945). No encroachment of the traditional jury function results, for the issue of coercion, unlike the basic facts on which coercion is ascertained, involves the application of constitutional standards of fundamental fairness under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 507 (1953) (concurring opinion). In each instance, our inquiry must weigh the "circumstances of pressure against the power of resistance of the person confessing." Fikes v. Alabama, 352 U.S. 191, 197 (1957), quoting Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 185 (1953).

We turn then to the undisputed portions of the record to ascertain the facts against which petitioner's claim of coercion must be measured.


Petitioner is an itinerant Negro laborer who lived with his common-law wife and four other Negroes, including one Ross Lee Cooper, a 17-year-old boy, in an old barracks provided by his employer about a half mile from the victim's store. Petitioner is a Navy veteran, 27 years

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old at the time of the murder, with a partial high school education. He had a criminal record of three different convictions, the most serious being a five-year larceny sentence, as well as two terms in the Navy brig for twice being absent without leave from his service post.

The body of Janie Miscovich was found Tuesday morning, March 17. A supplier noticed smoke coming from the store and summoned the help of three men constructing a building nearby, one of whom was petitioner. Petitioner did nothing to assist in putting out the fire, and left the scene before the victim's body was discovered, declaring that he "never could stand the stench of burning flesh." Although the body was severely beaten and burned, death was attributed to knife wounds in the heart, inflicted with a large knife found later in the store.

[78 S.Ct. 888] Preliminary investigation by local police disclosed that petitioner and Cooper were at the store together Monday afternoon and evening. After they returned to the barracks at approximately 8:30 p.m., petitioner left again by himself, returning around midnight. A trail of blood and footprints was traced from the store to within 50 yards of the barracks, where a strip of freshly harrowed ground made further tracking impossible. Blood spots were found in the kitchen of the barracks, and two bloody gloves were found hidden near the barracks. Both gloves were for the right hand and one of them was slit across the middle, ring and little fingers. Matching gloves were found in the store, where nine pairs plus two gloves for the left hand remained out of 12 pairs of gloves stocked by Janie Miscovich on Monday. The only pair of shoes petitioner owned, found under his bed in the barracks, exactly matched the 13 1/2-inch footprints trailed to the barracks. He had returned to the barracks after discovery of the fire and exchanged his shoes for a pair of old work boots he got "out of the trash pile."

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A posse of 12 to 15 men headed by the Sheriff of Cochise County apprehended petitioner Tuesday at 3 p.m. lying under a pasture brush pile over 200 yards from the road and about 1 1/2 miles from Kansas Settlement. Three fingers of his right hand had been severely cut, matching the slits in the bloody glove found outside the barracks.

Petitioner was placed under arrest by the Sheriff and handcuffed by a state highway patrolman with the posse. When asked by the Sheriff "why he had killed the woman," petitioner asserted that he had not killed her, but that he could take the posse to the man who had done so, accusing Cooper of the murder. He also stated that he had cut his hand on a can. At this point, a local rancher...

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