399 U.S. 1 (1970), 72, Coleman v. Alabama

Docket Nº:No. 72
Citation:399 U.S. 1, 90 S.Ct. 1999, 26 L.Ed.2d 387
Party Name:Coleman v. Alabama
Case Date:June 22, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court

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399 U.S. 1 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 1999, 26 L.Ed.2d 387




No. 72

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 1970

Argued November 18, 1969



Petitioners were convicted of assault with intent to murder and the Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed. They argue that (1) the in-court identifications that were made of them were fatally tainted by a prejudicial station house lineup (which occurred prior to United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, and Gilbert v. California, 388 U.S. 263, requiring the exclusion of such tainted in-court identification evidence), and (2) that Alabama's failure to provide them with appointed counsel at the preliminary hearing, a "critical stage" of the prosecution, unconstitutionally denied them the assistance of counsel. The victim testified that, "in the car lights," while "looking straight at him," he saw the petitioner who shot him, and saw the other petitioner "face to face." He also stated that he identified the gunman at the station house before the formal lineup began, and identified the other before he spoke the words used by the assailants. The sole purposes of a preliminary hearing under Alabama law are to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant presenting the case to a grand jury, and to fix bail for bailable offenses. The trial court scrupulously followed Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400, which prohibits the use of testimony given at a pretrial proceeding where the accused did not have the benefit of cross-examination by and through counsel.

Held: The convictions are vacated, and the case is remanded to determine whether the denial of counsel at the preliminary hearing was harmless error. Pp. 3-20.

44 Ala.App. 429, 211 So.2d 917, vacated and remanded.

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MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, MR. JUSTICE WHITE, and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, for the three points enumerated directly below, and by MR. JUSTICE BLACK, for the third point, concluded that:

1. On this record, the trial court did not err in finding that the victim's in-court identifications did not stem from a lineup procedure "so impermissibly suggestive as to give rise to a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification." Pp. 3.

2. The preliminary hearing is a "critical stage" of Alabama's criminal process at which the indigent accused is "as much entitled to such aid [of counsel] . . . as at the trial itself." Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 57. Pp. 7-10.

3. Although nothing that occurred at the preliminary hearing was used at the trial, the record does not reveal whether petitioners were otherwise prejudiced by absence of counsel at the hearing, and the question whether the denial of counsel was harmless error should be answered in the first instance by the Alabama courts. Pp. 10-11.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK concluded that:

1. Petitioners had a right to the assistance of counsel at the preliminary hearing not because it is deemed part of a "fair trial" by judges, but because the Sixth Amendment establishes a right to counsel "[i]n all criminal prosecutions," and, in Alabama, the preliminary hearing is a definite part or stage of a criminal prosecution. Pp. 11-13.

2. The trial court did not err in permitting courtroom identification of petitioners by the victim who had previously identified them at the lineup, as the requirements of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments were satisfied when the prosecution declined at trial to introduce the lineup identifications into evidence. Pp. 13-14.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN concurs in the conclusion that petitioners constitutional rights were violated when they were refused counsel at the preliminary hearing. Pp. 19-20.

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BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the following opinion.

Petitioners were convicted in an Alabama Circuit Court of assault with intent to murder in the shooting of one Reynolds after he and his wife parked their car on an Alabama highway to change a flat tire. The Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed, 44 Ala.App. 429, 211 So.2d 917 (1968), and the Alabama Supreme Court denied review, 282 Ala. 725, 211 So.2d 927 (1968). We granted certiorari, 394 U.S. 916 (1969). We vacate and remand.

Petitioners make two claims in this Court. First, they argue that they were subjected to a station house lineup in circumstances so unduly prejudicial and conducive to irreparable misidentification as fatally to taint Reynolds' in-court identifications of them at the trial. Second, they argue that the preliminary hearing prior to their indictment was a "critical stage" of the prosecution, and that Alabama's failure to provide them with appointed counsel at the hearing therefore unconstitutionally denied them the assistance of counsel.


The lineup of which petitioners complain was conducted on October 1, 1966, about two months after the assault and seven months before petitioners' trial. Petitioners concede that, since the lineup occurred before United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, and Gilbert v. California, 388 U.S. 263, were decided on June 12, 1967, they cannot invoke the holding of those cases requiring the exclusion of in-court identification evidence which is tainted by exhibiting the accused to identifying witnesses before trial in the absence of counsel.

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Stovall v. Denno, 388 U.S. 293, 296-301 (1967). Rather, they argue that, in the circumstances here, the conduct of the lineup was so unduly prejudicial as fatally to taint Reynolds' in-court identification of them. This is a claim that must be determined on the totality of the surrounding circumstances. Stovall v. Denno, supra, at 301-302; Simmons v. United States, 390 U.S. 377 (1968); Foster v. California, 394 U.S. 440 (1969).

At the trial, Reynolds testified that, at about 11:30 p.m. on July 24, 1966, he was engaged in changing a tire when three men approached from across the highway. One of them shot him from a short distance away. The three then ran up to within three or four feet. Reynolds arose from his stooped position and held on to his wife, who had left the car to watch him as he worked. One of the men put his hand on Mrs. Reynolds' shoulder. Reynolds testified that this [90 S.Ct. 2001] was Coleman. Within a few seconds, a car with its lights on approached, and the three men turned and "ran across the road. . . ." As they turned to go, Reynolds was shot a second time. He identified petitioner Stephens as the gunman, stating that he saw him "in the car lights" while "looking straight at him." Reynolds repeated on cross-examination his testimony on direct; he said he saw Coleman "face to face"; "I looked into his face," "got a real good look at him."

At the pretrial hearing on petitioners' motion to suppress identification evidence, Detective Fordham testified that he had spoken briefly to Reynolds at the hospital two days after the assault and about two weeks later, and that on neither occasion was Reynolds able to provide much information about his assailants. At the hospital, he gave a vague description -- that the attackers were "young, black males, close to the same age and height." Petitioners are both Negro; but Stephens was 18 and 6'2", and Coleman, 28 and 5'4 1/2". However,

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Detective Fordham also testified that, at the time Reynolds gave this description, he was in considerable pain, and that, consequently, the questioning was very brief. The detective further stated that Reynolds did not identify any of his assailants from mug shots, but it does not appear whether pictures of petitioners were among those shown him. Detective Hart testified that a lineup was held on October 1 at the request of the police. He stated that Reynolds identified petitioner Stephens spontaneously before the formal lineup even began.

[T]he six men were brought in by the warden, up on the stage, and as Otis Stephens -- he didn't get to his position on the stage, which was number one, when Mr. Reynolds identified him as being one of his assailants.

Reynolds gave similar testimony:

As soon as he stepped inside the door -- I hadn't seen him previous to then until he stepped inside the door, and I recognized him. . . . Just as soon as he stepped up on the stage, I said, "That man, there, is the one; he is the one that shot me."

Reynolds also testified that he identified Coleman at the lineup before Coleman could act on a request Reynolds had made that the lineup participants speak certain words used by the attackers. Reynolds admitted that he did not tell Detective Hart of his identification until later during the lineup, and the detective stated he could not recall whether Reynolds told him of the identification before or after Coleman spoke the words.

It cannot be said on this record that the trial court erred in finding that Reynolds' in-court identification of the petitioners did not stem from an identification procedure at the lineup "so impermissibly suggestive as to give rise to a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification." Simmons v. United States, supra, at 384. Indeed, the court could find on the evidence adduced at the suppression hearing that Reynolds' identifications were entirely based upon observations at the

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time of the assault, and not at all induced by the conduct of the lineup. There is no merit in the three arguments offered by petitioners for a contrary conclusion.

First, Reynolds testified that, when the police asked him to go to the city jail, he "took [it] for granted" that the police had caught his assailants. But the record is utterly devoid of evidence that anything the police said or did prompted Reynolds' virtually spontaneous identification of petitioners among the lineup participants as the proceeding got under way.

Petitioners next contend that the lineup was unfair because they and their codefendant were the only ones required to...

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