395 U.S. 238 (1969), 642, Boykin v. Alabama

Docket Nº:No. 642
Citation:395 U.S. 238, 89 S.Ct. 1709, 23 L.Ed.2d 274
Party Name:Boykin v. Alabama
Case Date:June 02, 1969
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 238

395 U.S. 238 (1969)

89 S.Ct. 1709, 23 L.Ed.2d 274




No. 642

United States Supreme Court

June 2, 1969

Argued March 4, 1969



Petitioner, a 27-year-old Negro, who was represented by appointed counsel, pleaded guilty to five indictments for common law robbery. The judge asked no questions of petitioner concerning his plea, and petitioner did not address the court. Under Alabama law providing for a jury trial to fix punishment on a guilty plea, the prosecution presented eyewitness testimony and petitioner's counsel cursorily cross-examined. Petitioner did not testify; no character or background testimony was presented for him, and there was nothing to indicate that he had a prior criminal record. The jury found petitioner guilty and sentenced him to death on each indictment. The Alabama Supreme Court reviewed the sentences under the State's automatic appeal statute for capital cases, which requires the reviewing court to comb the record for prejudicial error even though not raised by counsel. Petitioner did not raise the question of the voluntariness of his guilty plea, and the State Supreme Court did not pass on that question, though a majority of the court explicitly considered it in affirming his sentences of death.


1. This Court has jurisdiction to review the question of the voluntary character of the plea, since the plain error of the trial judge's acceptance of petitioner's guilty plea absent an affirmative showing that the plea was intelligent and voluntary was before the state court under the Alabama automatic appeal statute. Pp. 241-242. ,

2. A waiver of the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment and applicable to the States by the Fourteenth; of the right to trial by jury, and the right to confront one's accusers -- all of which are involved when a guilty plea is entered in a state criminal trial -- cannot be presumed from a silent record. Pp. 242-243.

3. Acceptance of the petitioner's guilty plea under the circumstances of this case constituted reversible error because the record does not disclose that the petitioner voluntarily and understandingly entered his plea of guilty. Pp. 243-244.

281 Ala. 659, 207 So.2d 412, reversed.

Page 239

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In the spring of 1966, within the period of a fortnight, a series of armed robberies occurred in Mobile, Alabama. The victims, in each case, were local shopkeepers open at night who were forced by a gunman to hand over money. While robbing one grocery store, the assailant fired his gun once, sending a bullet through a door into the ceiling. A few days earlier, in a drugstore, the robber had allowed his gun to discharge in such a way that the bullet, on ricochet from the floor, struck a customer in the leg. Shortly thereafter, a local grand jury returned five indictments against petitioner, a 27-year-old Negro, for common law robbery -- an offense punishable in Alabama by death.

Before the matter came to trial, the court determined that petitioner was indigent, and appointed counsel1 to represent him. Three days later, at his arraignment, petitioner pleaded guilty to all five indictments. So far as the record shows, the judge asked no questions of petitioner concerning his plea, and petitioner did not address the court.

Page 240

Trial strategy may, of course, make a plea of guilty seem the desirable course. But the record is wholly silent on that point, and throws no light on it.

Alabama provides that, when a defendant pleads guilty, "the court must cause the punishment to be determined by a jury" (except where it is required to be fixed by the court) and may "cause witnesses to be examined, to ascertain the character of the offense." Ala.Code, Tit. 15, § 277 (1958). In the present case, a trial of that dimension was held, the prosecution presenting its case largely through eyewitness testimony. Although counsel for petitioner engaged in cursory cross-examination, petitioner neither testified himself nor presented testimony concerning his character and background. There was nothing to indicate that he had a prior criminal record.

[89 S.Ct. 1711] In instructing the jury, the judge stressed that petitioner had pleaded guilty in five cases of robbery,2 defined as

the felonious taking of money . . . from another against his will . . . by violence or by putting him in fear . . . [carrying] from ten years minimum in the penitentiary to the supreme penalty of death by electrocution.

The jury, upon deliberation, found petitioner guilty and sentenced him severally to die on each of the five indictments.

Taking an automatic appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, petitioner argued that a sentence of death for common law robbery was cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the Federal Constitution, a suggestion which that court unanimously rejected. 281 Ala. 659, 207 So.2d 412. On their own motion, however, four of the seven justices discussed the constitutionality of the process by which the trial judge had accepted petitioner's guilty plea. From the order affirming the

Page 241

trial court, three justices dissented on the ground that the record was inadequate to show that petitioner had intelligently and knowingly pleaded guilty. The fourth member concurred separately, conceding that

a trial judge should not accept a guilty plea unless he has determined that such a plea was voluntarily and knowingly entered by the defendant,

but refusing "[f]or aught appearing" "to presume that the trial judge failed to do his duty." 281 Ala., at 662, 663, 207 So.2d at 414, 415. We granted certiorari. 393 U.S. 820.

Respondent does not suggest that we lack jurisdiction to review the voluntary character of petitioner's guilty plea because he failed to raise that federal question below and the state court failed to pass upon it.3 But the question was raised on oral argument, and we conclude that it is properly presented. The very Alabama statute...

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