360 U.S. 264 (1959), 583, Napue v. Illinois

Docket Nº:No. 583
Citation:360 U.S. 264, 79 S.Ct. 1173, 3 L.Ed.2d 1217
Party Name:Napue v. Illinois
Case Date:June 15, 1959
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 264

360 U.S. 264 (1959)

79 S.Ct. 1173, 3 L.Ed.2d 1217

Napue

v.

Illinois

No. 583

United States Supreme Court

June 15, 1959

Argued April 30, 1959

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS

Syllabus

At petitioner's trial in a state court in which he was convicted of murder, the principal state witness, an accomplice then serving a 199-year sentence for the same murder, testified in response to a question by the Assistant State's Attorney that he had received no promise of consideration in return for his testimony. The Assistant State's Attorney had in fact promised him consideration, but he did nothing to correct the witness' false testimony. The jury was apprised, however, that a public defender had promised "to do what he could" for the witness.

Held: The failure of the prosecutor to correct the testimony of the witness which he knew to be false denied petitioner due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 265-272.

(a) The established principle that a State may not knowingly use false testimony to obtain a tainted conviction does not cease to apply merely because the false testimony goes only to the credibility of the witness. Pp. 269-270.

(b) The fact that the jury was apprised of other grounds for believing that the witness may have had an interest in testifying against petitioner was not sufficient to turn what was otherwise a tainted trial into a fair one. Pp. 270-271.

(c) Since petitioner claims denial of his rights under the Federal Constitution, this Court was not bound by the factual conclusion reached by the Illinois Supreme Court, but reexamined for itself the evidentiary basis on which that conclusion was founded. Pp. 271-272.

13 Ill.2d 566, 150 N.E.2d 613, reversed.

Page 265

WARREN, J., lead opinion

[79 S.Ct. 1175] MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN, delivered the opinion of the Court.

At the murder trial of petitioner, the principal state witness, then serving a 199-year sentence for the same murder, testified in response to a question by the Assistant State's Attorney that he had received no promise of consideration in return for his testimony. The Assistant State's Attorney had, in fact, promised him consideration, but did nothing to correct the witness' false testimony. The jury was apprised, however, that a public defender had promised "to do what he could" for the witness. The question presented is whether, on these facts, the failure of the prosecutor to correct the testimony of the witness which he knew to be false denied petitioner due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The record in this Court contains testimony from which the following facts could have been found. The murder in question occurred early in the morning of August 21, 1938, in a Chicago, Illinois, cocktail lounge. Petitioner Henry Napue, the witness George Hamer, one Poe, and one Townsend entered the dimly lighted lounge and announced their intention to rob those present. An off-duty policeman, present in the lounge, drew his service revolver and began firing at the four men. In the melee that followed, Townsend was killed, the officer was fatally wounded, and the witness Hamer was seriously wounded. Napue and Poe carried Hamer to the car, where a fifth man, one Webb, was waiting. In due course, Hamer was apprehended, tried for the murder of the policeman, convicted on his plea of guilty, and sentenced to 199 years. Subsequently, Poe was apprehended, tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed. Hamer was not used as a witness.

Thereafter, petitioner Napue was apprehended. He was put on trial, with Hamer being the principal witness

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for the State. Hamer's testimony was extremely important, because the passage of time and the dim light in the cocktail lounge made eyewitness identification very difficult and uncertain, and because some pertinent witnesses had left the state. On the basis of the evidence presented, which consisted largely of Hamer's testimony, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and petitioner was sentenced to 199 years.

Finally, the driver of the car, Webb, was apprehended. Hamer also testified against him. He was convicted of murder, and sentenced to 199 years.

Following the conviction of Webb, the lawyer who, as former Assistant State's Attorney, had prosecuted the Hamer, Poe, and Napue cases filed a petition in the nature of a writ of error coram nobis on behalf of Hamer. In the petition, he alleged that, as prosecuting attorney, he had promised Hamer that, if he would testify against Napue, "a recommendation for a reduction of his [Hamer's] sentence would be made, and, if possible, effectuated."1 The

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attorney [79 S.Ct. 1176] prayed that the court would effect "consummation of the compact entered into between the duly authorized representatives of the State of Illinois and George Hamer."

This coram nobis proceeding came to the attention of Napue, who thereafter filed a post-conviction petition in which he alleged that Hamer had falsely testified that he had been promised no...

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