422 U.S. 853 (1975), 73-6587, Herring v. New York

Docket Nº:No. 73-6587
Citation:422 U.S. 853, 95 S.Ct. 2550, 45 L.Ed.2d 593
Party Name:Herring v. New York
Case Date:June 30, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 853

422 U.S. 853 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 2550, 45 L.Ed.2d 593



New York

No. 73-6587

United States Supreme Court

June 30, 1975

Argued February 26, 1975




A total denial of the opportunity for final summation in a nonjury criminal trial as well as in a jury trial deprives the accused of the basic right to make his defense, and a New York statute granting every judge in a nonjury criminal trial the power to deny such summation before rendition of judgment denies the accused the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution as applied against the States by the Fourteenth. Pp. 856-865.

43 App.Div.2d 816, 351 N.Y.S.2d 368, vacated and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. post, p. 865.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

A New York law confers upon every judge in a nonjury criminal trial the power to deny counsel any opportunity to make a summation of the evidence before the rendition of judgment. N.Y.Crim.Proc.Law § 320.20(3)(c)

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(1971).1 In the case before us, we are called upon to assess the constitutional validity of that law.


The appellant was brought to trial in the Supreme Court of Richmond County, N.Y., upon charges of attempted robbery in the first and third degrees and possession of a dangerous instrument.2 He waived a jury.

The trial began on a Thursday, and, after certain preliminaries, the balance of that day and most of Friday were spent on the case for the prosecution. The complaining witness, Allen Braxton, testified that the appellant had approached him outside his home in a Staten Island housing project at about six o'clock on the evening of September 15, 1971, and asked for money. He said that, when he refused this demand, the appellant had swung a knife at him. On cross-examination, the appellant's lawyer attempted to impeach the credibility of this evidence by demonstrating inconsistencies between Braxton's testimony and other sworn statements that Braxton had previously made.3 The only other

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witness.for the prosecution was the police [95 S.Ct. 2552] officer who had arrested the appellant upon the complaint of Braxton. The officer testified that Braxton had reported the alleged incident to him, and that the appellant, when confronted by the officer later in the evening, had denied Braxton's story and said that he had been working for a Mr. Taylor at the time of the alleged offense. The officer testified that he had then arrested the appellant and found a small knife in his pocket.4

At the close of the case for the prosecution, the court granted a defense motion to dismiss the charge of possession of a dangerous instrument on the ground that the knife in evidence was too small to qualify as a dangerous instrument under state law. The trial was then adjourned for the two-day weekend.

Proceedings did not actually resume until the following Monday afternoon. The first witness for the defense

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was Donald Taylor, who was the appellant's employer. He testified that he recalled seeing the appellant on the job premises at about 5:30 p.m. on the day of the alleged offense. The appellant then took the stand and denied Braxton's story. He said that he had been working on a refrigerator at his place of employment during the time of the alleged offense, and further testified that Braxton, a former neighbor, had threatened on several occasions to "fix" him for refusing to give Braxton money for wine and drugs.

At the conclusion of the case for the defense, counsel made a motion to dismiss the robbery charges. This motion was denied. The appellant's lawyer then requested to "be heard somewhat on the facts." The trial judge replied: "Under the new statute, summation is discretionary, and I choose not to hear summations." The judge thereupon found the appellant guilty of attempted robbery in the third degree, and subsequently sentenced him to serve an indeterminate term of imprisonment with a maximum of four years. The conviction was affirmed without opinion by an intermediate appellate court.5 Leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals was denied. An appeal was then brought here, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 419 U.S. 893.


The Sixth Amendment guarantees to the accused in all criminal prosecutions the rights to a "speedy and

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public trial," to an "impartial jury," to notice of the "nature and cause of the accusation," to be "confronted" with opposing witnesses, [95 S.Ct. 2553] to "compulsory process" for defense witnesses, and to the "Assistance of Counsel."6 These fundamental rights are extended to a defendant in a state criminal prosecution through the Fourteenth Amendment.7

The decisions of this Court have not given to these constitutional provisions a narrowly literalistic construction. More specifically, the right to the assistance of counsel has been understood to mean that there can be no restrictions upon the function of counsel in defending a criminal prosecution in accord with the traditions of the adversary factfinding process that has been constitutionalized in the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. For example, in Ferguson v. Georgia, 365 U.S. 570, the Court held constitutionally invalid a state statute that, while permitting the defendant to make an unsworn statement to the court and jury, prevented defense counsel from eliciting the defendant's testimony through direct examination. Similarly, in Brooks v Tennessee, 406 U.S. 605, the Court found unconstitutional a state law

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that restricted the right of counsel to decide "whether, and when in the course of presenting his defense, the accused should take the stand." Id. at 613. The right to the assistance of counsel has thus been given a meaning that ensures to the defense in a criminal trial the opportunity to participate fully and fairly in the adversary factfinding process.

There can be no doubt that closing argument for the defense is a basic element of the adversary factfinding process in a criminal trial. Accordingly, it has universally been held that counsel for the defense has a right to make a closing summation to the jury, no matter how strong the case for the prosecution may appear to the presiding judge.8 The issue has been considered less [95 S.Ct. 2554] often

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in the context of a so-called bench trial. But the overwhelming weight of authority, in both federal and state courts, holds that a total denial of the opportunity for final argument in a nonjury criminal trial is a denial of the basic right of the accused to make his defense.9

One of many cases so holding was Yopps v. state, 228 Md. 204, 178 A.2d 879 (1962). The defendant in that case, indicted for burglary, was tried by the court without a jury. The defendant, in his testimony, admitted being in the vicinity of the offense, but denied any involvement in the crime. At the conclusion of the testimony, the trial judge announced a judgment of guilty. Defense counsel objected, stating that he wished to present argument on the facts. But the trial judge refused to hear any argument on the ground that only a question of credibility

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was involved, and that, therefore, counsel's argument would not change his mind. The Maryland Court of Appeals held that the trial court's refusal to permit defense counsel to make a final summation violated the defendant's right to the assistance of counsel under the State and Federal Constitutions:

The Constitutional right of a defendant to be heard through counsel necessarily includes his right to have his counsel make a proper argument on the evidence and the applicable law in his favor, however simple, clear, unimpeached, and conclusive the evidence may seem, unless he has waived his right to such argument, or unless the argument is not within the issues in the case, and the trial court has no discretion to deny the accused such right.

Id. at 207, 178 A.2d at 881.

The widespread recognition of the right of the defense to make a closing summary of the evidence to the trier of the facts, whether judge or jury, finds solid support in history. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when notions of compulsory process, confrontation, and counsel were in their infancy, the essence of the English criminal trial was argument between the defendant and counsel for the Crown. Whatever other procedural protections may have been lacking, there was no absence of debate on the factual and legal issues raised in a criminal case.10 As the rights to compulsory process, to confrontation, and to counsel developed,11 the adversary system's commitment

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to argument was neither discarded [95 S.Ct. 2555] nor diluted. Rather, the reform in procedure had the effect of shifting the primary function of argument to summation of the evidence at the close of trial, in contrast to the "fragmented" factual argument that had been typical of the earlier common law.12

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It can hardly be questioned that closing argument serves to sharpen and clarify the issues for resolution by the trier of fact in a criminal case. For it is only after all the evidence is in that counsel for the parties are in a position to present their respective versions of the case as a whole. Only then can they argue the inferences to be drawn from all the testimony, and point out the weaknesses of their adversaries' positions. And, for the defense, closing argument is the last clear chance to persuade the trier of fact that there may be reasonable doubt of the defendant's guilt. See In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358.

The very premise of our adversary system of criminal justice is that partisan...

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