360 U.S. 315 (1959), 582, Spano v New York

Docket Nº:No. 582
Citation:360 U.S. 315, 79 S.Ct. 1202, 3 L.Ed.2d 1265
Party Name:Spano v New York
Case Date:June 22, 1959
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 315

360 U.S. 315 (1959)

79 S.Ct. 1202, 3 L.Ed.2d 1265

Spano v New York

No. 582

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 1959

Argued April 27, 1959



After petitioner, a foreign-born young man of 25 with a junior highschool education and no previous criminal record, had been indicted for first-degree murder, he retained counsel and surrendered to police at 7:10 p.m. He was then subjected to persistent and continuous questioning by an assistant prosecutor and numerous police officers for virtually eight hours until he confessed, after he had repeatedly requested, and had been denied, an opportunity to consult his counsel. At his trial in a state court, his confession was admitted in evidence over his objection, and he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Held: On the record in this case, petitioner's will was overborne by official pressure, fatigue and sympathy falsely aroused, his confession was not voluntary, and its admission in evidence violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Pp. 315-324.

4 N.Y.2d 256, 173 N.Y.S.2d 793, 150 N.E.2d 226, reversed.

WARREN, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is another in the long line of cases presenting the question whether a confession was properly admitted into evidence under the Fourteenth Amendment. As in all such cases, we are forced to resolve a conflict between two fundamental interests of society -- its interest in prompt and efficient law enforcement and its interest in preventing the rights of its individual members from being abridged by unconstitutional methods of law enforcement.

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Because of the delicate nature of the constitutional determination which we must make, we cannot escape the responsibility of making our own examination of the record. Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587.

The State's evidence reveals the following: Petitioner Vincent Joseph Spano is a derivative citizen of this country, having been born in Messina, Italy. He was 25 years old at the time of the shooting in question, and had graduated from junior high school. He had a record of regular employment. The shooting took place on January 22, 1957.

On that day, petitioner was drinking in a bar. The decedent, a former professional boxer weighing almost 200 pounds who had fought in Madison Square Garden, took some of petitioner's money from the bar. Petitioner followed him out of the bar to recover it. A fight ensued, with the decedent knocking petitioner down and then kicking him in the head three or four times. Shock from the force of these blow caused petitioner to vomit. After the bartender applied some ice to his head, petitioner left the bar, walked to his apartment, secured a gun, and walked eight or nine blocks to a candy store where the decedent was frequently to be found. He entered the store in which decedent, three friends of decedent, at least two of whom were ex-convicts, and a boy who was supervising the store were present. He fired five shots, two of which entered the decedent's body, causing his death. The boy was the only eyewitness; the three friends of decedent did not see the person who fired the shot. Petitioner then disappeared for the next week or so.

On February 1, 1957, the Bronx County Grand Jury returned an indictment for first-degree murder against petitioner. Accordingly, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest, commanding that he be forthwith brought before the court to answer the indictment, or, if the court had adjourned for the term, that he be delivered into the

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custody of the Sheriff of Bronx County. See N.Y.Code Crim.Proc. § 301.

[79 S.Ct. 1204] On February 3, 1957, petitioner called one Gaspar Bruno, a close friend of 8 or 10 years' standing who had attended school with him. Bruno was a fledgling police officer, having at that time not yet finished attending police academy. According to Bruno's testimony, petitioner told him

that he took a terrific beating, that the deceased hurt him real bad and he dropped him a couple of times and he was dazed; he didn't know what he was doing, and that he went and shot at him.

Petitioner told Bruno that he intended to get a lawyer and give himself up. Bruno relayed this information to his superiors.

The following day, February 4, at 7:10 p.m., petitioner, accompanied by counsel, surrendered himself to the authorities in front of the Bronx County Building, where both the office of the Assistant District Attorney who ultimately prosecuted his case and the courtroom in which he was ultimately tried were located. His attorney had cautioned him to answer no questions, and left him in the custody of the officers. He was promptly taken to the office of the Assistant District Attorney, and, at 7:15 p.m., the questioning began, being conducted by Assistant District Attorney Goldsmith, Lt. Gannon, Detectives Farrell, Lehrer and Motta, and Sgt. Clarke. The record reveals that the questioning was both persistent and continuous. Petitioner, in accordance with his attorney's instructions, steadfastly refused to answer. Detective Motta testified: "He refused to talk to me." "He just looked up to the ceiling and refused to talk to me." Detective Farrell testified:

Q. And you started to interrogate him?

A. That is right.

* * * *

Q. What did he say?

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A. He said "you would have to see my attorney. I tell you nothing but my name."

Q. Did you continue to examine him?

A. Verbally, yes, sir.

He asked one officer, Detective Ciccone, if he could speak to his attorney, but that request was denied. Detective Ciccone testified that he could not find the attorney's name in the telephone book.1 He was given two sandwiches, coffee and cake at 11 p.m.

At 12:15 a.m. on the morning of February 5, after five hours of questioning in which it became evident that petitioner was following his attorney's instructions, on the Assistant District Attorney's orders, petitioner was transferred to the 46th Squad, Ryer Avenue Police Station. The Assistant District Attorney also went to the police station and to some extent continued to participate in the interrogation. Petitioner arrived at 12:30, and questioning was resumed at 12:40. The character of the questioning is revealed by the testimony of Detective Farrell:

Q. Who did you leave him in the room with?

A. With Detective Lehrer and Sergeant Clarke came in and Mr. Goldsmith came in or Inspector Halk came in. It was back and forth. People just came in, spoke a few words to the defendant or they listened a few minutes and they left.

But petitioner persisted in his refusal to answer, and again requested permission to see his attorney, this time from Detective Lehrer. His request was again denied.

It was then that those in charge of the investigation decided that petitioner's close friend, Bruno, could be of

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use. He had been called out on the case around 10 or 11 p.m., although he was not connected with the 46th Squad or Precinct in any way. Although, in fact, his job was in no way threatened, Bruno was [79 S.Ct. 1205] told to tell petitioner that petitioner's telephone call had gotten him "in a lot of trouble," and that he should seek to extract sympathy from petitioner for Bruno's pregnant wife and three children. Bruno developed this theme with petitioner without success, and petitioner, also without success, again sought to see his attorney, a request which Bruno relayed unavailingly to his superiors. After this first session with petitioner, Bruno was again directed by Lt. Gannon to play on petitioner's sympathies, but again no confession was forthcoming. But the Lieutenant a third time ordered Bruno falsely to importune his friend to confess, but again petitioner clung to his attorney's advice. Inevitably, in the fourth such session directed by the Lieutenant, lasting a full hour, petitioner succumbed to his friend's prevarications and agreed to make a statement. Accordingly, at 3:25 a.m., the Assistant District Attorney, a stenographer, and several other law enforcement officials entered the room where petitioner was being questioned, and took his statement in question and answer form with the Assistant District Attorney asking the questions. The statement was completed at 4:05 a.m.

But this was not the end. At 4:30 a.m., three detectives took petitioner to Police Headquarters in Manhattan. On the way, they attempted to find the bridge from which petitioner said he had thrown the murder weapon. They crossed the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan, arriving at Police Headquarters at 5 a.m., and left Manhattan for the Bronx at 5:40 a.m. via the Willis Avenue Bridge. When petitioner recognized neither bridge as the one from which he had thrown the weapon, they reentered Manhattan via the Third Avenue Bridge, which petitioner stated was the right one, and then returned to

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the Bronx well after 6 a.m. During that trip, the officers also elicited a statement from petitioner that the deceased was always "on [his] back," "always pushing" him, and that he was "not sorry" he had shot the deceased. All three detectives testified to that statement at the trial.

Court opened at 10 a.m. that morning, and petitioner was arraigned at 10:15.

At the trial, the confession was introduced in evidence over appropriate objections. The jury was instructed that it could rely on it only if it was found to be voluntary. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and petitioner was sentenced to death. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction over three dissents, 4 N.Y.2d 256, 173 N.Y.S.2d 793, 150 N.E.2d 226, and we granted certiorari to resolve the serious problem presented under the Fourteenth Amendment. 358 U.S. 919.

Petitioner's first contention is that his absolute right to counsel in a capital case, Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, became operative on the return of an...

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