426 U.S. 637 (1976), 74-1529, Henderson v. Morgan

Docket Nº:No. 74-1529
Citation:426 U.S. 637, 96 S.Ct. 2253, 49 L.Ed.2d 108
Party Name:Henderson v. Morgan
Case Date:June 17, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 637

426 U.S. 637 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 2253, 49 L.Ed.2d 108




No. 74-1529

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1976

Argued February 24, 1976




Respondent was indicated for first-degree murder, but, by agreement with the prosecution and on counsel's advice, respondent pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced. Subsequently, after exhausting his state remedies in an unsuccessful attempt to have his conviction vacated on the ground that his guilty plea was involuntary, respondent filed a habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court, alleging that his guilty plea was involuntary because, inter alia, he was not aware that intent to cause death was an element of second-degree murder. The District Court ultimately heard the testimony of several witnesses, including respondent and his defense counsel in the original prosecution; and the transcript of the relevant state court proceedings and certain psychological evaluations of respondent, who was substantially below average intelligence, were made part of the record. On the basis of the evidence thus developed, the District Court found that respondent had not been advised by counsel or the state court that an intent to cause death was an essential element of second-degree murder, and, based on this finding, held that the guilty plea was involuntary, and had to be set aside. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Since respondent did not receive adequate notice of the offense to which he pleaded guilty, his plea was involuntary, and the judgment of conviction was entered without due process of law. The plea could not be voluntary in the sense that it constituted an intelligent admission that he committed the offense unless respondent received "real notice of the true nature of the charge against him, the first and most universally recognized requirement of due process." Smith v. O'Grady, 312 U.S. 329, 334. Where the record discloses that defense counsel did not purport to stipulate that respondent had the requisite intent or explain to him that his plea would be admission of that fact, and he made no factual statement or admission necessarily implying that he had such intent, it is impossible

Page 638

to conclude that his plea to the unexplained charge of second-degree murder was voluntary. Pp. 644-647.

516 F.2d 897, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which STEWART, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 647. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 652.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a defendant may enter a voluntary plea of guilty to a charge of second-degree murder without being informed that intent to cause the death of his victim was an element of the offense.

The case arises out of a collateral attack on a judgment entered by a state trial court in Fulton County, N.Y., in 1965. Respondent, having been indicated on a charge of first-degree murder, pleaded guilty to [96 S.Ct. 2255] second-degree murder and was sentenced to an indeterminate term of imprisonment of 25 years to life. He did not appeal.

In 1970, respondent initiated proceedings in the New York courts seeking to have his conviction vacated on

Page 639

the ground that his plea of guilty was involuntary.1 The state courts denied relief on the basis of the written record.2 Having exhausted his state remedies,3 in 1973, respondent filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.4 He alleged that his guilty plea was involuntary because he was not aware (1) of the sentence that might be imposed upon conviction of second-degree murder, or (2) that intent to cause death was an element of the offense. Based on the state court record, the Federal District Court denied relief. The Court of Appeals reversed summarily and directed the District Court

to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the issues raised by petitioner, including whether, at the time of his entry of his guilty plea, he was aware that intent was an essential element of the crime and was advised of the scope of the punishment that might be imposed.

Upon remand the District Judge heard the testimony of several witnesses including respondent, the two lawyers who had represented him in 1965, the prosecutor,

Page 640

and respondent's mother. In addition, the transcript of the relevant state court proceedings and certain psychological evaluations of respondent were made a part of the record.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the District Court made only two specific findings of fact.5 First, contrary to respondent's testimony, the court expressly found that he was advised that a 25-year sentence would be imposed if he pleaded guilty. Second, the court found that respondent

was not advised by counsel or court, at any time, that an intent to cause the death or a design to effect the death of the victim was an essential element of Murder 2nd degree.

On the basis of the latter finding, the District Court held "as a matter of law" that the plea of guilty was involuntary and had to be set aside.6

Page 641

This holding was [96 S.Ct. 2256] affirmed, without opinion, by the Court of Appeals.7

Before addressing the question whether the District Court correctly held the plea invalid as a matter of law, we review some of the facts developed at the evidentiary hearing.


On April 6, 1965, respondent killed Mrs. Ada Francisco in her home.

When he was in seventh grade, respondent was committed to the Rome State School for Mental Defectives where he was classified as "retarded." He was released to become a farm laborer and ultimately went to work on Mrs. Francisco's farm. Following an argument, she threatened to return him to state custody. He then decided to abscond. During the night he entered Mrs. Francisco's bedroom with a knife, intending to collect his earned wages before leaving; she awoke, began to scream, and he stabbed her.8 He took a small amount of money, fled in her car, and became involved in an accident about 80 miles away. The knife was found in the glove compartment of her car. He was promptly arrested and made a statement to the police. He was

Page 642

then 19 years old, and substantially below average intelligence.9

Respondent was indicated for first-degree murder and arraigned on April 15, 1965. Two concededly competent attorneys were appointed to represent him. The indictment, which charged that he "willfully" stabbed his victim, was read in open court. His lawyers requested, and were granted, access to his written statement and to earlier psychiatric reports. A new psychiatric examination was requested and ordered.

Respondent was found competent to stand trial. Defense counsel held a series of conferences with the prosecutors, with the respondent, and with members of his family. The lawyers "thought manslaughter first would satisfy the needs of justice."10 They therefore endeavored to have the charge reduced to manslaughter, but the prosecution would agree to nothing less than second-degree murder and a minimum sentence of 25 years. The lawyers gave respondent advice about the different sentences which could be imposed for the different offenses, but, as the District Court found, did not explain the required element of intent.

On June 8, 1965, respondent appeared in court with his attorneys and entered a plea of guilty to murder in the second degree in full satisfaction of the first-degree murder charge made in the indictment. In direct colloquy with the trial judge, respondent stated that his plea was based on the advice of his attorneys, that he understood he was accused of killing Mrs. Francisco in Fulton County, that he was waiving his right to a jury trial, and that he would be sent to prison. There was no discussion of the elements of the offense of second-degree

Page 643

murder, no indication that the nature of the offense had ever been discussed with respondent, and no reference of any kind to the requirement of intent to cause the death of the victim.

At the sentencing hearing a week later, his lawyers made a statement explaining his version of the offense, particularly noting that respondent "meant no harm to that lady" when he entered her room with the [96 S.Ct. 2257] knife.11 The prosecutor disputed defense counsel's version of the matter, but did not discuss it in detail. After studying the probation officer's report, the trial judge pronounced sentence.

At the evidentiary hearing in the Federal District Court, respondent testified that he would not have pleaded guilty if he had known that an intent to cause

Page 644

the death of his victim was an element of the offense of second-degree murder. The District Judge did not indicate whether or not he credited this testimony.12


Petitioner contends that the District Court applied an unrealistically rigid rule of law. Instead of testing the voluntariness of a plea by determining whether a ritualistic litany of the formal legal elements of an offense was read to the defendant, petitioner argues that the court should examine the totality of the circumstances and determine whether the substance of the charge, as opposed to its technical elements, was conveyed to the accused. We do not disagree with the thrust of petitioner's argument, but we are persuaded that, even under the test which he espouses, this judgment finding respondent guilty of second-degree murder was defective.

We assume, as petitioner argues, that the prosecutor had overwhelming evidence of guilt available. We also accept petitioner's characterization of the competence of...

To continue reading