407 U.S. 371 (1972), 70-5012, Milton v. Wainwright

Docket Nº:No. 70-5012
Citation:407 U.S. 371, 92 S.Ct. 2174, 33 L.Ed.2d 1
Party Name:Milton v. Wainwright
Case Date:June 22, 1972
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 371

407 U.S. 371 (1972)

92 S.Ct. 2174, 33 L.Ed.2d 1




No. 70-5012

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 1972

Argued January 12, 1972




Petitioner in this habeas corpus proceeding challenged on Fifth and Sixth Amendment grounds the introduction at his trial of a post-indictment, pretrial confession he made to a police officer posing as a fellow prisoner. The denial of habeas corpus relief is affirmed without reaching the merits of petitioner's claims; any possible error in the admission of the challenged confession was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in light of three other unchallenged confessions and strong corroborative evidence of petitioner's guilt. Harrington v. California, 395 U.S. 250; Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18. Pp. 372-378.

428 F.2d 463, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 378.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted the writ of certiorari on claims under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments arising out of the use of one of a number of confessions, all of which were received in evidence over objection. The confession challenged here was obtained by a police officer posing as an accused person confined in the cell with petitioner.

Page 372

Petitioner Milton is presently serving a life sentence imposed in 1958 upon his conviction of first-degree murder following a jury trial in Dade County, Florida. During that trial, the State called as a witness a police officer who, at a time when petitioner had already been indicted and was represented by counsel, posed as a fellow prisoner and spent almost two full days sharing a cell with petitioner. The officer testified to incriminating statements made to him by petitioner during this period. Contending that the statements he made to the officer were involuntary under Fifth Amendment standards and were obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights as subsequently interpreted in Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201 (1964), petitioner initiated the present habeas corpus proceeding in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The District Court, finding that petitioner had exhausted his state remedies in the course of several post-conviction proceedings in the Florida courts, ruled against petitioner on the merits of his claim, holding that his statements to the police officer were not inadmissible on Fifth Amendment grounds and that his Sixth Amendment claim could not prevail, since "[n]o Court has declared Massiah retroactive, and this Court will not be the first to do so." 306 F.Supp. 929, 933. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of relief to petitioner, 428 F.2d 463.

On the basis of the argument in the case and our examination of the extensive record of petitioner's 1958 trial, we have concluded that the judgment under review must be affirmed without reaching the merits of petitioner's present claim. Assuming, arguendo, that the challenged testimony should have been excluded, the record clearly reveals that any error in its admission was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Harrington v. California, 395 U.S. 250 (1969); Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). The jury, in addition to hearing the challenged

Page 373

testimony, was presented with overwhelming evidence of petitioner's guilt, including no less than three full confessions that were made by petitioner [92 S.Ct. 2176] prior to his indictment. Those confessions have been found admissible in the course of previous post-conviction proceedings brought by petitioner in his attempts to have this conviction set aside, and they are not challenged here.

The crime for which petitioner was convicted occurred in the early morning hours of June 1, 1958. The woman with whom petitioner had been living was asleep while riding as a passenger in the rear seat of an automobile driven by petitioner; she died by drowning when the car ran into the Miami River with its rear windows closed and its rear doors securely locked from the outside with safety devices designed to ensure against accidental opening of the doors. Petitioner, who jumped from the car shortly before it reached the water, was nevertheless propelled into the river by the car's momentum; he was recovered from the water when a seaman nearby heard his cries for help and found him clinging to a boat moored in the river near the point of the automobile's entry. A few hours later the car, with the victim's body still inside, was retrieved from the bottom of the river a short distance downstream from its point of entry.

The following day, the Miami police arrested petitioner on manslaughter charges and placed him in the city jail. Ten days after the woman's death, petitioner, having been advised of his right to remain silent, confessed that he had deliberately killed the woman and that the accident was simulated. He first made an oral confession to a police officer during a question and answer exchange that was preserved on a wire-recording device. He then repeated his confession during another exchange, and these statements were taken down by a stenographer; after this stenographic recording was converted to a transcript, petitioner

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read it over in full and signed it at 11 p.m. on June 11.1

The following day, petitioner told a police officer that he would like to make some clarifying additions to the statements in the writing he had signed the previous night. The officer suggested that they first go with a photographer to the scene of the incident "and reconstruct how this thing . . . occurred." Petitioner agreed. He, the police officer, and a photographer then went to the scene of the crime where petitioner pointed out the route he had taken in driving the car to the river, the approximate point at which he had jumped out of the car, and the point of the car's entry into the river. Petitioner was then taken back to the police station, where he went over his statement of the night before and indicated to the officer the parts of that statement he wanted to clarify. Once again, a stenographer was summoned and a question and answer exchange was taken down and transcribed to a writing that petitioner read over and signed.2

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Approximately [92 S.Ct. 2177] one week after he had made these confessions, petitioner secured the services of an attorney, who advised him not to engage in any further discussions of his case with anyone else.


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