394 U.S. 478 (1969), 644, Boulden v. Holman

Docket Nº:No. 644
Citation:394 U.S. 478, 89 S.Ct. 1138, 22 L.Ed.2d 433
Party Name:Boulden v. Holman
Case Date:April 02, 1969
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 478

394 U.S. 478 (1969)

89 S.Ct. 1138, 22 L.Ed.2d 433




No. 644

United States Supreme Court

April 2, 1969

Argued February 26, 1969




Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in accordance with the jury's verdict. After the conviction was affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court, petitioner requested federal habeas corpus relief on the ground that the introduction of a confession into evidence at his trial (which antedated Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478, and Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436) violated his constitutional rights. After a full hearing, the District Court found the confession voluntary and the Court of Appeals affirmed. In his brief in this Court, petitioner raised the question whether the jury that sentenced him to death was selected in accordance with the principles recently announced in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510.


1. The lower courts' holding that petitioner's confession was voluntary is justified. Pp. 479-481.

2. Since several veniremen were excused for cause apparently because they voiced general objections to the death penalty, it appears that the sentence of death cannot constitutionally stand under Witherspoon, supra, and the cause is remanded to the District Court, where this belated issue may be fully considered. Pp. 481-484.

385 F.2d 102, vacated and remanded.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was convicted in the Circuit Court of Morgan County, Alabama, of first-degree murder, and

Page 479

was sentenced to death in accordance with the verdict of the jury. After the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, 278 Ala. 437, 179 So.2d 20, the petitioner instituted this habeas corpus proceeding in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., denied relief, 257 F.Supp. 1013, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 385 F.2d 102, rehearing denied, 393 F.2d 932, 395 F.2d 169. We granted certiorari. 393 U.S. 822.


Although there was substantial additional evidence of the petitioner's guilt, his conviction was based in part on a confession he had made some days after his arrest. His request for habeas corpus relief rested on a claim that the introduction of that confession into evidence violated his rights under the Constitution.1 Since his

Page 480

trial antedated our decisions in Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478, and Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, that claim is essentially a contention that under the constitutional standards prevailing prior to those decisions, his confession was made involuntarily. See Johnson v. New Jersey, 384 U.S. 719; Davis v. North Carolina, 384 U.S. 737.

[89 S.Ct. 1140] After holding a full hearing regarding the issue and considering the state court record, the District Court, in an opinion applying the proper constitutional standards, was unable to conclude that the petitioner's confession was "other than voluntarily made." The confession, the court found, "simply was not coerced." 257 F.Supp. at 1017, 1016. The Court of Appeals, likewise applying appropriate standards, similarly could "find from the record here no plausible suggestion that Boulden's will was overborne. . . ." 38. F.2d at 107.2

Little purpose would be served by an extensive summation of the record in the District Court proceedings and in the state trial court. The question whether a confession was voluntarily made necessarily turns on the "totality of the circumstances"3 in any particular case, and most of the relevant circumstances surrounding the petitioner's confession are set out in the opinions of the District Court and the Court of Appeals. Suffice it to say that we have made an independent study of the entire record,4 and have determined that, although the

Page 481

issue is a relatively close one, the conclusion reached by the District Court and the Court of Appeals was justified.


In seeking habeas corpus the petitioner challenged only the admission of his confession into evidence, and his petition for certiorari was limited to that claim. In his brief and in oral argument on the merits, however, he has raised a substantial additional question: whether the jury that sentenced him to death was selected in accordance with the principles underlying our decision last Term in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510.

We held in Witherspoon that

a sentence of death cannot be carried out if the jury that imposed or recommended it was chosen by excluding veniremen for cause simply because they voiced general objections to the death penalty or expressed conscientious or religious scruples against its infliction.

391 U.S. at 522. In the present case, the record indicates that no less than 15 prospective jurors were excluded by the prosecution under an Alabama statute that provides:

On the trial for any offense which may be punished capitally, . . . it is a good cause of challenge by the state that the person has a fixed opinion against capital . . . punishmen[t]. . . .5

That statutory standard has been construed by the Alabama Supreme Court to authorize the exclusion of potential jurors who, although "opposed to capital punishment, . . . would hang some men." Untreinor v. State, 146 Ala. 26, 33, 41 So. 285, 287.

However, as we emphasized in Witherspoon,

The critical question . . . is not how the phrases employed in this area have been construed by courts and commentators.

Page 482

What matters is how they might be understood -- or misunderstood -- by prospective jurors.

391 U.S. at 516, n. 9. "The most that can be demanded of a venireman in this regard," we said,

is that he be willing to consider all of the penalties provided by state law, and that he not be irrevocably committed, before the trial has begun, to vote against the penalty of death regardless of the facts and circumstances that might emerge in the [89 S.Ct. 1141] course of the proceedings. If the voir dire testimony in a given case indicates that veniremen were excluded on any broader basis than this, the death sentence cannot be carried out. . . .

Id. at 522, n. 21. We made it clear that

[u]nless a venireman states unambiguously that he would automatically vote against the imposition of capital punishment no matter what the trial might reveal, it simply cannot be assumed that that is his position.

Id. at 516, n. 9.

It appears that, at the petitioner's trial two prospective jurors were excluded only after they had acknowledged that they would "never" be willing to impose the death penalty.6 Eleven veniremen, however, appear to have been excused for cause simply on the basis of their affirmative

Page 483

answers to the question whether, in the statutory language, they had "a fixed opinion against" capital punishment. The following excerpt from the record is typical of those instances:

THE COURT: Do you have a fixed opinion against capital punishment?

MR. SEIBERT: Yes, sir.

MR. HUNDLEY: We challenge.

THE COURT: Defendant?

MR. CHENAULT: No questions.

THE COURT: Stand aside. You are excused.

Two other veniremen seem to have been excluded merely by virtue of their statements that they did not "believe in" capital punishment.7 Yet it is entirely [89 S.Ct. 1142] possible that

Page 484

a person who has "a fixed opinion against" or who does not "believe in" capital punishment might nevertheless be perfectly able as a juror to abide by existing law -- to follow conscientiously the instructions of a trial judge and to consider fairly the imposition of the death sentence in a particular case.

It appears, therefore, that the sentence of death imposed upon the petitioner cannot constitutionally stand under Witherspoon v. Illinois. We do not, however, finally decide that question here, for several reasons. First, the Witherspoon issue was not raised in the District Court, in the Court of Appeals,8 or in the petition for certiorari filed in this Court. A further hearing directed to the issue might conceivably modify in some fashion the conclusion so strongly suggested by the record now before us. Further, it is not clear whether the petitioner has exhausted his state remedies with respect to this issue. Finally, in the event it turns out, as now appears, that relief from this death sentence must be ordered, a local federal court will be far better equipped than are we to frame an appropriate decree with due regard to available Alabama procedures.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded to the District Court,

Page 485

where the issue that has belatedly been brought to our attention may be properly and fully considered.

It is so ordered.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK, while still adhering to his dissent in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 532, acquiesces in the Court's judgment and opinion.

MR. JUSTICE FORTAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

HARLAN, J., concurring and dissenting

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL join, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

I agree that the case must be remanded to the District Court for a determination of the Witherspoon question, and I therefore join in Part II of the Court's opinion. However, I believe that, on remand, the District Court should also consider an aspect of petitioner's coerced confession claim which the opinions in the two courts below completely ignore, and to which this Court pays only passing attention.

The Court states that "[t]wo confessions...

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