357 U.S. 426 (1958), 158, Ashdown v. Utah

Docket Nº:No. 158
Citation:357 U.S. 426, 78 S.Ct. 1354, 2 L.Ed.2d 1443
Party Name:Ashdown v. Utah
Case Date:June 30, 1958
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 426

357 U.S. 426 (1958)

78 S.Ct. 1354, 2 L.Ed.2d 1443




No. 158

United States Supreme Court

June 30, 1958

Argued April 1, 1958



Petitioner claims that her conviction in a state court of first-degree murder was obtained by use in evidence of an oral confession which had been obtained in such a manner that its use violated due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. Her husband had died suddenly. Arriving at the cemetery just after the interment, the sheriff asked her to come to the courthouse, which she did. There, she talked with the sheriff, a deputy sheriff and the district attorney, all of whom she knew. The district attorney advised her that she did not have to answer any questions, and was entitled to an attorney, but she did not request an attorney until after her oral confession. She was treated in a temperate and courteous manner. She was told that her husband had died of poisoning, and the matter was approached as if to discover whether it had been accidental. The district attorney told her that he had once been cleared of a criminal charge by cooperating with the investigators. The officers let her talk freely on family matters without interruption. About four and a half hours after the interview began, she made the oral confession in issue here. Meanwhile, her father and uncle had come to the building and asked to see her, but they were not permitted to do so until after the interview.

Held: the record contains ample support for a finding that the officers did not take advantage of petitioner, and that nothing they did had the effect of overbearing her will, and the judgment is affirmed. Pp. 427-431.

5 Utah 2d 59, 296 P.2d 726, affirmed.

Page 427

BURTON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

A jury in a Utah court found petitioner, Mrs. Ashdown, guilty of the first-degree murder of her husband, and recommended a life sentence. The question before us is whether petitioner's oral confession was obtained in such a manner as to make its use in evidence a violation of the due process of law required by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This issue was thoroughly considered by the trial court, which made findings in relation to it. The Supreme Court of Utah reviewed the record in detail and upheld the admission of the confession. 5 Utah 2d 59, 296 P.2d 726. We granted certiorari. 353 U.S. 981. Our independent review of the record brings us to the same conclusion.

On July 5, 1955, Ray Ashdown, petitioner's husband, died suddenly in his home in Cedar City, Utah. Petitioner had summoned a doctor, who arrived shortly before Ray Ashdown's death. The doctor testified that the deceased gave the appearance of having been poisoned, and that he told the doctor just before he died that he had taken some bitter-tasting lemon juice about a half hour earlier. On being called, the sheriff made a thorough search of the Ashdown home, but found no trace of any poison. An autopsy was performed, and the contents of the deceased's stomach was sent to the state chemist's office for analysis. The report, received by the sheriff on July 9, stated that the stomach of the deceased contained strychnine.

July 9 was the day of the funeral. Promptly after receipt of the chemist's report, the sheriff went to the cemetery, arriving just after the interment. Through petitioner's brother-in-law, the sheriff asked that petitioner come to the County and City Building. At about 4 p.m., she and her sister arrived at the sheriff's office.

Page 428

The sheriff asked to talk with petitioner privately, and she consented. They went across the hall to an empty courtroom, where the sheriff, a deputy sheriff, and the district attorney, all people known by the petitioner, talked with her for the next five and one-half hours.

The sheriff told petitioner the results of the autopsy and the chemist's report. Within the first half hour, the district attorney advised her that she did not have to answer any questions and that she was entitled to consult with an attorney. She made no request for an attorney at that time. She said she did not think she could add anything to help the investigation, but she mentioned her husband had been despondent on several occasions. The officers let her talk freely on family matters without interruption, and such conversation consumed about half the time spent in the interview. The sheriff attempted to direct her attention to discovering whether her husband's death might have been due to an accident. To impress her with the importance of the distinction between murder and manslaughter, the district attorney read her some of the statutes relating to those crimes. In addition, he told her about an experience he had in the Army in Europe. He said he had been accused of killing five men but, by cooperating with investigating officials, he had been cleared of all blame for those deaths.

[78 S.Ct. 1356] The officers reviewed in detail the events of July 5. Petitioner admitted giving her husband a cup of lemon juice about a half hour...

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