397 U.S. 742 (1970), 270, Brady v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 270
Citation:397 U.S. 742, 90 S.Ct. 1463, 25 L.Ed.2d 747
Party Name:Brady v. United States
Case Date:May 04, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 742

397 U.S. 742 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 1463, 25 L.Ed.2d 747



United States

No. 270

United States Supreme Court

May 4, 1970

Argued November 18, 1969




Petitioner was indicted in 1959 for kidnaping and not liberating the victim unharmed in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a), which imposed a maximum penalty of death if the jury's verdict so recommended. Upon learning that his codefendant, who had confessed, would plead guilty and testify against him, petitioner changed his plea from not guilty to guilty. The trial judge accepted the plea after twice questioning petitioner (who was represented throughout by competent counsel) as to the voluntariness of his plea, and imposed sentence. In 1967, petitioner sought post-conviction relief, in part on the ground that § 1201(a) operated to coerce his plea. The District Court, after hearing, denied relief, concluding that petitioner's plea was voluntary and had been induced not by that statute, but by the development concerning his confederate. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Petitioner claims that United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968), requires reversal of that holding.

Held: On the record in this case, there is no basis for disturbing the judgment of the courts below that petitioner's guilty plea was voluntary. Pp. 745-758.

(a) Though United States v. Jackson, supra, prohibits imposition of the death penalty under § 1201(a), it does not hold that all guilty pleas encouraged by the fear of possible death are involuntary, nor does it invalidate such pleas, whether involuntary or not. Pp. 745-748.

(b) A plea of guilty is not invalid merely because entered to avoid the possibility of the death penalty, and here, petitioner's plea of guilty met the standard of voluntariness, as it was made "by one fully aware of the direct consequences" of that plea. Pp. 749-755.

(c) Petitioner's plea, made after advice by competent counsel, was intelligently made, and the fact that petitioner did not anticipate United States v. Jackson, supra, does not impugn the truth or reliability of that plea. Pp. 756-758.

404 F.2d 601, affirmed.

Page 743

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1959, petitioner was charged with kidnaping in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a).1 Since the indictment charged that the victim of the kidnaping was not liberated unharmed, petitioner faced a maximum penalty of death if the verdict of the jury should so recommend. Petitioner, represented by competent counsel throughout, first elected to plead not guilty. Apparently because the trial judge was unwilling to try the case without a jury, petitioner made no serious attempt to reduce the possibility of a death penalty by waiving a jury trial. Upon learning that his codefendant, who had confessed to the authorities, would plead guilty and be available to testify against him, petitioner changed his plea to guilty. His plea was accepted after the trial judge twice questioned him as to the voluntariness of his plea.2

Page 744

Petitioner was sentenced to 50 years' imprisonment, later reduced to 30.

In 1967, petitioner sought relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, claiming that his plea of guilty was not voluntarily given because § 1201(a) operated to coerce his plea, because his counsel exerted impermissible pressure upon him, and because his plea was induced by representations with respect to reduction of sentence and clemency. It was also alleged that the [90 S.Ct. 1467] trial judge had not fully complied with Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.3

Page 745

After a hearing, the District Court for the District of New Mexico denied relief. According to the District Court's findings, petitioner's counsel did not put impermissible pressure on petitioner to plead guilty, and no representations were made with respect to a reduced sentence or clemency. The court held that § 1201(a) was constitutional, and found that petitioner decided to plead guilty when he learned that his codefendant was going to plead guilty: petitioner pleaded guilty "by reason of other matters and not by reason of the statute" or because of any acts of the trial judge. The court concluded that "the plea was voluntarily and knowingly made."

The Court of Appeal for the Tenth Circuit affirmed, determining that the District Court's findings were supported by substantial evidence and specifically approving the finding that petitioner's plea of guilty was voluntary. 404 F.2d 601 (1968). We granted certiorari, 395 U.S. 976 (1969), to consider the claim that the Court of Appeals was in error in not reaching a contrary result on the authority of this Court's decision in United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968). We affirm.


In United States v. Jackson, supra, the defendants were indicted under § 1201(a). The District Court dismissed the § 1201(a) count of the indictment, holding

Page 746

the statute unconstitutional because it permitted imposition of the death sentence only upon a jury's recommendation, and thereby made the risk of death the price of a jury trial. This Court held the statute valid, except for the death penalty provision; with respect to the latter, the Court agreed with the trial court "that the death penalty provision . . . imposes an impermissible burden upon the exercise of a constitutional right. . . ." 390 U.S. at 572. The problem was to determine

whether the Constitution permits the establishment of such a death penalty, applicable only to those defendants who assert the right to contest their guilt before a jury.

390 U.S. at 581. The inevitable effect of the provision was said to be to discourage assertion of the [90 S.Ct. 1468] Fifth Amendment right not to plead guilty and to deter exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to demand a jury trial. Because the legitimate goal of limiting the death penalty to cases in which a jury recommends it could be achieved without penalizing those defendants who plead not guilty and elect a jury trial, the death penalty provision "needlessly penalize[d] the assertion of a constitutional right," 390 U.S. at 583, and was therefore unconstitutional.

Since the "inevitable effect" of the death penalty provision of § 1201(a) was said by the Court to be the needless encouragement of pleas of guilty and waivers of jury trial, Brady contends that Jackson requires the invalidation of every plea of guilty entered under that section, at least when the fear of death is shown to have been a factor in the plea. Petitioner, however, has read far too much into the Jackson opinion.

The Court made it clear in Jackson that it was not holding § 1201(a) inherently coercive of guilty pleas:

the fact that the Federal Kidnaping Act tends to discourage defendants from insisting upon their innocence and demanding trial by jury hardly implies that

Page 747

every defendant who enters a guilty plea to a charge under the Act does so involuntarily.

390 U.S. at 583. Cited in support of this statement, 390 U.S. at 583 n. 25, was Laboy v. New Jersey, 266 F.Supp. 581 (D.C. N.J.1967), where a plea of guilty (non vult) under a similar statute was sustained as voluntary in spite of the fact, as found by the District Court, that the defendant was greatly upset by the possibility of receiving the death penalty.

Moreover, the Court in Jackson rejected a suggestion that the death penalty provision of § 1201(a) be saved by prohibiting in capital kidnaping cases all guilty pleas and jury waivers,

however clear [the defendants'] guilt and however strong their desire to acknowledge it in order to spare themselves and their families the spectacle and expense of protracted courtroom proceedings.

"[T]hat jury waivers and guilty pleas may occasionally be rejected" was no ground for automatically rejecting all guilty pleas under the statute, for such a rule "would rob the criminal process of much of its flexibility." 390 U.S. at 584.

Plainly, it seems to us, Jackson ruled neither that all pleas of guilty encouraged by the fear of a possible death sentence are involuntary pleas nor that such encouraged pleas are invalid whether involuntary or not. Jackson prohibits the imposition of the death penalty under § 1201(a), but that decision neither fashioned a new standard for judging the validity of guilty pleas nor mandated a new application of the test theretofore fashioned by courts and since reiterated that guilty pleas are valid if both "voluntary" and "intelligent." See Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969).4

Page 748

That a guilty plea is a grave and solemn act to be accepted only with care and discernment has long been recognized. Central to the plea and the foundation for entering judgment against the defendant is the defendant's admission in open court that he committed the act charged in the indictment. He thus stands as a witness against himself, and he is shielded by the Fifth Amendment from being compelled to do [90 S.Ct. 1469] so -- hence the minimum requirement that his plea be the voluntary expression of his own choice.5 But the plea is more than an admission of past conduct; it is the defendant's consent that judgment of conviction may be entered without a trial -- a waiver of his right to trial before a jury or a judge. Waivers of constitutional rights not only must be voluntary, but must be knowing, intelligent acts done with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences.6 On neither score was Brady's plea of guilty invalid.

Page 749


The trial judge in 1959 found the plea voluntary before accepting it; the District Court in 1968, after an evidentiary hearing, found that the plea was voluntarily made; the Court of Appeals specifically approved the finding of voluntariness. We see no reason on this record to disturb the judgment of those courts. Petitioner, advised by...

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