421 U.S. 794 (1975), 74-5116, Murphy v. Florida

Docket Nº:No. 74-5116
Citation:421 U.S. 794, 95 S.Ct. 2031, 44 L.Ed.2d 589
Party Name:Murphy v. Florida
Case Date:June 16, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 794

421 U.S. 794 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 2031, 44 L.Ed.2d 589




No. 74-5116

United States Supreme Court

June 16, 1975

Argued April 15, 1975




Petitioner, who was convicted in state court of robbery, contends in this habeas corpus proceeding that he was denied a fair trial because jurors had learned from news accounts of prior felony convictions or certain facts about the robbery charge. In the course of jury selection 78 members of the panel were questioned, 70 being excused (30 for personal reasons, 20 peremptorily, and 20 by the court as having prejudged petitioner), and eight being selected (including two alternates). The District Court and the Court of Appeals denied relief.


1. Juror exposure to information about a state defendant's prior convictions or to news accounts of the crime with which he is charged do not alone presumptively deprive the defendant of due process. Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717; Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723; Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532; Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, distinguished. Pp. 797-799.

2. The voir dire in this case indicates no such juror hostility to petitioner as to suggest a partiality that could not be laid aside. Though some jurors vaguely recalled the robbery and each had some knowledge of petitioner's past crimes, none betrayed any belief in the relevance to the robbery case of petitioner's past, and there was no indication from the circumstances surrounding petitioner's trial or from the number of the panel excused for prejudgment of petitioner, of inflamed community sentiment to counter the indicia of impartiality disclosed by the voir dire transcript. Thus, in the totality of the circumstances, petitioner failed to show inherent prejudice in the trial setting or actual prejudice from the jury selection process. Pp. 799-803.

495 F.2d 553, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 803. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 804.

Page 795

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

[95 S.Ct. 2034] MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by this case is whether the petitioner was denied a fair trial because members of the jury had learned from news accounts about a prior felony conviction or certain facts about the crime with which he was charged. Under the circumstances of this case, we find that petitioner has not been denied due process, and we therefore affirm the judgment below.


Petitioner was convicted in the Dade County, Fla., Criminal Court in 1970 of breaking and entering a home, while armed, with intent to commit robbery, and of assault with intent to commit robbery. The charges stemmed from the January, 1968, robbery of a Miami Beach home and petitioner's apprehension, with three others, while fleeing from the scene.

The robbery and petitioner's arrest received extensive press coverage because petitioner had been much in the news before. He had first made himself notorious for his part in the 1964 theft of the Star of India sapphire from a museum in New York. His flamboyant lifestyle made him a continuing subject of press interest; he was generally referred to -- at least in the media -- as "Murph the Surf."

Before the date set for petitioner's trial on the instant charges, he was indicted on two counts of murder in

Page 796

Broward County, Fla. Thereafter, the Dade County court declared petitioner mentally incompetent to stand trial; he was committed to a hospital, and the prosecutor nolle prossed the robbery indictment. In August, 1968, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to transport stolen securities in interstate commerce. After petitioner was adjudged competent for trial, he was convicted on one count of murder in Broward County (March, 1969) and pleaded guilty to one count of the federal indictment involving stolen securities (December, 1969). The indictment for robbery was refiled in August, 1969, and came to trial one year later.

The events of 1968 and 1969 drew extensive press coverage. Each new case against petitioner was considered newsworthy not only in Dade County, but elsewhere as well.1 The record in this case contains scores of articles reporting on petitioner's trials and tribulations during this period; many purportedly relate statements that petitioner or his attorney made to reporters.

Jury selection in the present case began in August, 1970. Seventy-eight jurors were questioned. Of these, 30 were excused for miscellaneous personal reasons; 20 were excused peremptorily by the defense or prosecution; 20 were excused by the court as having prejudged petitioner; and the remaining eight served as the jury and two alternates. Petitioner's motions to dismiss the chosen jurors, on the ground that they were aware that he had previously been convicted of either the 1964 Star of India theft or the Broward County murder, were denied, as was his renewed motion for a change of venue based on allegedly prejudicial pretrial publicity.

Page 797

At trial, petitioner did not testify or put in any evidence; assertedly in protest of the selected jury, he did not cross-examine any of the State's witnesses. He was convicted on both counts, and, after an unsuccessful appeal, he sought habeas corpus relief in the District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

The District Court denied petitioner relief, 363 F.Supp. 1224 (1973), and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth [95 S.Ct. 2035] Circuit affirmed. 495 F.2d 553 (1974). We granted certiorari, 419 U.S. 1088 (1974), in order to resolve the apparent conflict between the decision below and that of the Third Circuit in United States ex rel. Doggett v. Yeager, 472 F.2d 229 (1973), over the applicability of Marshall v. United States, 360 U.S. 310 (1959), to state criminal proceedings.


The defendant in Marshall was convicted of dispensing certain drugs without a prescription. In the course of the trial, seven of the jurors were exposed to various news accounts relating that Marshall had previously been convicted of forgery, that he and his wife had been arrested for other narcotics offenses, and that he had for some time practiced medicine without a license. After interviewing the jurors, however, the trial judge denied a motion for a mistrial, relying on the jurors' assurances that they could maintain impartiality in spite of the news articles.

Noting that the jurors had been exposed to information with a high potential for prejudice, this Court reversed the conviction. It did so, however, expressly "[i]n the exercise of [its] supervisory power to formulate and apply proper standards for enforcement of the criminal law in the federal courts," and not as a matter of constitutional compulsion. Id. at 313.

Page 798

In the face of so clear a statement, it cannot be maintained that Marshall was a constitutional ruling now applicable, through the Fourteenth Amendment, to the States. Petitioner argues, nonetheless, that more recent decisions of this Court have applied to state cases the principle underlying the Marshall decision:2 that persons who have learned from news sources of a defendant's prior criminal record are presumed to be prejudiced. We cannot agree that Marshall has any application beyond the federal courts.

Petitioner relies principally upon Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717 (1961), Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723 (1963), Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532 (1965), and Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966). In each of these cases, this Court overturned a state court conviction obtained in a trial atmosphere that had been utterly corrupted by press coverage.

In Irvin v. Dowd, the rural community in which the trial was held had been subjected to a barrage of inflammatory publicity immediately prior to trial, including information on the defendant's prior convictions, his confession to 24 burglaries and six murders including the one for which he was tried, and his unaccepted offer to plead guilty in order to avoid the death sentence. As a result, eight of the 12 jurors had formed an opinion that the defendant was guilty before the trial began; some went "so far as to say that it would take evidence to overcome their belief" in his guilt. 366 U.S. at 728. In these circumstances, the Court readily found actual prejudice against the petitioner to a degree that rendered a fair trial impossible.

Prejudice was presumed in the circumstances under which the trials in Rideau, Estes, and Sheppard were

Page 799

held. In those cases, the influence of the news media, either in the community at large or in the courtroom itself, pervaded the proceedings. In Rideau, the defendant had "confessed" to the murder of which he stood convicted. A 20-minute film of his confession was broadcast three times by a television station in the community where the crime and the trial took place. In reversing, the Court did not examine the voir dire for evidence of actual prejudice because it considered the trial under review "but [95 S.Ct. 2036] a hollow formality" -- the real trial had occurred when tens of thousands of people, in a community of 150,000, had seen and heard the defendant admit his guilt before the cameras.

The trial in Estes had been conducted in a circus atmosphere, due in large part to the intrusions of the press, which was allowed to sit within the bar of the court and to overrun it with television equipment. Similarly, Sheppard arose from a trial infected not only by a background of extremely inflammatory publicity, but also by a courthouse given over to accommodate the public appetite for carnival. The proceedings in these cases were entirely lacking in the solemnity and sobriety to which a defendant is entitled in...

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