397 U.S. 759 (1970), 153, McMann v. Richardson

Docket Nº:No. 153
Citation:397 U.S. 759, 90 S.Ct. 1441, 25 L.Ed.2d 763
Party Name:McMann v. Richardson
Case Date:May 04, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 759

397 U.S. 759 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 1441, 25 L.Ed.2d 763




No. 153

United States Supreme Court

May 4, 1970

Argued February 24, 1970




Respondents were convicted in state court of felonies, following their pleas of guilty, entered on advice of counsel, which in petitions for collateral relief they claimed, inter alia, were the illegal product of coerced confessions. Following denial of relief in the state courts, the District Courts, without evidentiary hearings, denied the petitions. The Court of Appeals reversed in each case, holding that a guilty plea (1) effectively waives pretrial irregularities only if voluntary; (2) is not voluntary if it results from an involuntary confession, and (3) is vulnerable (at least in New York cases like these) where entered prior to Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964).


1. A competently counseled defendant who alleges that he pleaded guilty because of a prior coerced confession is not, without more, entitled to a hearing on his petition for habeas corpus. Pp. 768-771.

(a) A defendant who pleads guilty despite his feeling that the evidence against him is weak, apart from a confession he deems inadmissible, is merely refusing to present his federal claims regarding the confession to the state court in the first instance. Such a defendant cannot claim that his bypass of state remedies was not an intelligent act absent incompetent advice by counsel. Pp. 768-769.

(b) A defendant's plea of guilty based on reasonably competent advice is an intelligent plea not open to attack as being involuntary on the ground that his counsel may have misjudged the admissibility of the defendant's confession. Pp. 769-771.

2. A defendant who pleads guilty, thereby waiving his state court remedies, does so under the law then existing and assumes the risk of ordinary error in either his or his attorney's assessment of the law and facts, and, in this case, the fact that respondents' counsel did not anticipate this Court's decision in Jackson v. Denno, supra, and did not consider invalid the New York procedures existing at the time their clients pleaded guilty does not mean that respondents were incompetently advised. Pp. 771-774.

408 F.2d 48 and 658, and 409 F.2d 1016, vacated and remanded.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petition for certiorari, which we granted, 396 U.S. 813 (1969), seeks reversal of three separate judgments of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ordering hearings on petitions for habeas corpus filed by the respondents in this case.1 The principal issue before us is whether and to what extent an otherwise valid guilty plea may be impeached in collateral proceedings by assertions or proof that the plea was motivated by a prior coerced confession. We find ourselves in substantial disagreement with the Court of Appeals.

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The three respondents now before us are Dash, Richardson, and Williams. We first State the essential facts involved as to each.

Dash: In February, 1959, respondent Dash was charged with first-degree robbery which, because Dash had previously been convicted of a felony, was punishable [90 S.Ct. 1444] by up to 60 years' imprisonment.2 After pleading guilty to robbery in the second degree in April, he was sentenced to a term of eight to 12 years as a second felony offender.3 His petition for collateral relief in the state courts in 1963 was denied without a hearing.4

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Relief was then sought in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, where his petition for habeas corpus alleged that his guilty plea was the illegal product of a coerced confession and of the trial judge's threat to impose a 60-year sentence if he was convicted after a plea of not guilty. His petition asserted that he had been beaten, refused counsel, and threatened with false charges prior to his confession, and that the trial judge's threat was made during an off-the-record colloquy in one of Dash's appearances in court prior to the date of his plea of guilty. Dash also asserted that his court-appointed attorney had advised pleading guilty, since Dash did not "stand a chance due to the alleged confession signed" by him. The District Court denied the petition without a hearing because

a voluntary plea of guilty entered on advice of counsel constitutes a waiver of all nonjurisdictional defects in any prior stage of the proceedings against the defendant,

citing United States ex rel. Glenn v. McMann, 349 F.2d 1018 (C.A.2d Cir.1965), cert. denied, 383 U.S. 915 (1966), and other cases. The allegation of coercion by the trial judge did not call for a hearing, since the prosecutor had filed an affidavit in the state court categorically denying that the trial judge ever threatened the defendant. Dash then appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Richardson: Respondent Richardson was indicted in April, 1963, for murder in the first degree. Two attorneys were assigned to represent Richardson. He initially pleaded not guilty, but, in July, withdrew his plea and pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree, specifically admitting at the time that he struck the victim with a knife. He was convicted and sentenced to a term of 30 years to life. Following the denial without a hearing of his application for collateral relief in the

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state courts,5 Richardson filed his petition for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, alleging in conclusory fashion that his plea of guilty was induced by a coerced confession and by ineffective court-appointed [90 S.Ct. 1445] counsel. His petition was denied without a hearing, and he appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, including with his appellate brief a supplemental affidavit in which he alleged that he was beaten into confessing the crime, that his assigned attorney conferred with him only 10 minutes prior to the day the plea of guilty was taken, that he advised his attorney that he did not want to plead guilty to something he did not do, and that his attorney advised him to plead guilty to avoid the electric chair, saying that "this was not the proper time to bring up the confession" and that Richardson "could later explain by a writ of habeas corpus how my confession had been beaten out of me."

Williams: In February, 1956, respondent Williams was indicted for five felonies, including rape and robbery. He pleaded guilty to robbery in the second degree in March, and was sentenced in April to a term of 7 1/2 to 15 years. After unsuccessful applications for collateral relief in the state courts,6 he petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, asserting that his plea was the consequence of a coerced confession and was made without an understanding of the nature of the

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charge and the consequences of the plea. In his petition and in documents supporting it, allegations were made that he had been handcuffed to a desk while being interrogated, that he was threatened with a pistol and physically abused, and that his attorney, in advising him to plead guilty, ignored his alibi defense and represented that his plea would be to a misdemeanor charge, rather than to a felony charge. The petition was denied without a hearing, and Williams appealed.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed in each case, sitting en banc and dividing six to three in Dash's case7 and disposing of Richardson's and Williams' cases in decisions by three-judge panels.8 In each case, it was directed that a hearing be held on the petition for habeas corpus.9 It was the Court of Appeals' view that

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a plea of guilty is an effective waiver of pretrial irregularities only if the plea is voluntary, and that a plea is not voluntary if it is the consequence of an involuntary confession.10 That the petitioner was represented by counsel and denied the existence of coercion [90 S.Ct. 1446] or promises when tendering his plea does not foreclose a hearing on his petition for habeas corpus alleging matters outside the state court record. Although conclusory allegations would in no case suffice, the allegations in each of these cases concerning the manner in which the confession was coerced and the connection between the confession and the plea were deemed sufficient to require a hearing. The law required this much, the Court of Appeals thought, at least in New York, where, prior to Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964), constitutionally acceptable procedures were unavailable to a defendant to test the voluntariness of his confession. The Court of Appeals also ordered a hearing in each case for reasons other than that the plea was claimed to rest on a coerced confession which the defendant had no adequate opportunity to test in the state courts. In the Dash case, the additional issue to be considered was whether the trial judge coerced the guilty plea by threats as to the probable sentence after trial and conviction on a plea of not guilty; in Richardson, the additional issue was the inadequacy of counsel allegedly arising from the

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short period of consultation and counsel's advice to the effect that the confession issue could be raised after a plea of guilty, and, in Williams, the additional question was the alleged failure of counsel to consider Williams' alibi defense and to make it clear that he was pleading to a felony, rather than to a misdemeanor.


The core of the Court of Appeals' holding is the proposition that if, in a collateral proceeding, a guilty plea is shown to have been triggered by a coerced confession -- if there would have been no plea had there been no confession -- the plea is vulnerable, at least in cases coming...

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