449 U.S. 341 (1981), 79-5949, Watkins v. Sowders

Docket NºNo. 79-5949
Citation449 U.S. 341, 101 S.Ct. 654, 66 L.Ed.2d 549
Party NameWatkins v. Sowders
Case DateJanuary 13, 1981
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 341

449 U.S. 341 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 654, 66 L.Ed.2d 549

Watkins

v.

Sowders

No. 79-5949

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 13, 1981

Argued November 10, 1980

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Held: A state criminal court is not required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to conduct a hearing out of the jury's presence whenever a defendant contends that a witness' identification of him was arrived at improperly. Pp. 345-349.

(a) Where identification evidence is at issue, no such special considerations as exist where the issue of the voluntariness of a confession is presented -- an involuntary confession being inadmissible both because it is likely to be unreliable and because of society's aversion to forced confessions, even if true, Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 -- justify a departure from the presumption that juries will follow the trial court's instructions. It is the reliability of identification evidence that primarily determines its admissibility, and the proper evaluation of evidence under the trial judge's instructions is the very task our system must assume juries can perform. Pp. 346-348.

(b) There is no merit to the contention that vigorous and full cross-examination in the presence of the jury of witnesses as to the possible improprieties of pretrial identifications is inconsistent with due process of law. While a "predicament" is always presented when a lawyer decides on cross-examination to ask a question that may produce an answer unfavorable to his client, the Due Process Clause does not inevitably require the abandonment of the time-honored process of cross-examination as the device best suited to determine the trustworthiness of testimonial evidence. Pp. 348-349.

(c) While a judicial determination outside the jury's presence as to the admissibility of identification evidence may often be advisable and, in some circumstances, not presented in these cases, may be constitutionally necessary, it does not follow that the Constitution requires a per se rule compelling such a procedure in every case. P. 349.

608 F.2d 247, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined.

Page 342

STEWART, J., lead opinion

[101 S.Ct. 656] JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases, consolidated for argument and decision in the Court of Appeals and in this Court, present the question whether a state criminal trial court is constitutionally compelled to conduct a hearing outside the presence of the jury whenever a defendant contends that a witness' identification of him was arrived at improperly.

I

A

John Watkins, the petitioner in No. 79-5949, was convicted in a Kentucky court of attempting to rob a Louisville liquor store. On the night of January 11, 1975, four men entered the store, one of whom asked for a pack of cigarettes. Walter Smith, an employee of the store, turned around to get the cigarettes, and one of the men said "[t]his is a hold-up." Donald Goeing, a part owner of the store, had been stocking a soft-drink cooler, and when he heard those words, he turned towards the robbers. The man who had spoken thereupon fired two shots at him, one striking him in his arm, the other in the region of his heart. The four men then fled.

That night, Smith and Goeing described the gunman to the police. Two days later, the police in the presence of Smith conducted lineup consisting of three men, one of whom was

Page 343

Watkins. Smith identified Watkins as the gunman. That same day, the police took Watkins to Goeing's hospital bed, and Goeing identified Watkins as the man who had shot him. Watkins was then charged with first-degree robbery and first-degree assault.

At the subsequent trial of Watkins, the prosecution called Smith and Goeing as witnesses. They both identified Watkins as Goeing's assailant, but were not asked by the prosecution about the lineup or the showup. Watkins' counsel, however, cross-examined both men at some length about both the lineup and showup. The prosecution then called a police officer. He testified that he had taken Watkins to be identified at the hospital because, "at that time, there was some question as to whether or not Mr. Goeing was going to survive the incident." Watkins' counsel cross-examined the officer about both the showup and the lineup and, through him, introduced pictures of the lineup. For the defense, Watkins' counsel called two witnesses who said that they had been in a pool hall with Watkins at the time of the robbery and another witness who said he had been in the liquor store at the time of the robbery and had not seen Watkins. Finally, Watkins himself testified to his innocence.

On appeal, as he had at trial, counsel for Watkins argued that the trial court had a constitutional obligation to conduct a hearing outside the presence of the jury to determine whether the identification evidence was admissible. The Supreme Court of Kentucky rejected that argument. Relying on its decision in Ray v. Commonwealth, 550 S.W.2d 482, 483 (1977), the court said

"[a]lthough we are of the opinion that the holding of such a hearing prior to the introduction of this testimony would have been the preferred course to follow, we are not persuaded the failure to have done so requires reversal of appellant's conviction."

Watkins v. Commonwealth, 565 S.W.2d 630, 631 (1978). The court found that the identification procedures "fail[ed] to

Page 344

raise any impermissible suggestiveness," and that Watkins "was in no way prejudiced." Ibid.

Watkins then unsuccessfully sought a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. That court held that, "although pretrial suppression hearings are preferable, the failure to hold them does not require the reversal of a conviction."1 The court also found that admission of neither the lineup nor the showup evidence at the state trial had violated constitutional standards.

[101 S.Ct. 657] The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment and, like the District Court, ruled that a hearing on the admissibility of identification evidence need not be held outside the presence of the jury. Turning to the evidence itself, the court cited Stovall v. Denno, 388 U.S. 293, as authority for holding that, "[g]iven the seriousness of the wounds to Donald Goeing, a showup was necessary in this case." Summitt v. Bordenkircher, 608 F.2d 247, 252. The federal appellate court also held that the lineup evidence had been constitutionally admissible at the state trial.

B

James Summitt, the petitioner in No. 79-5951, was convicted in a Kentucky court of rape. Late on the night of July 20, 1974, the prosecutrix was forced into a car occupied by two men, driven to an isolated location, raped by one of the men, and then returned to her own car. The next day, she reported the crime to the police, described the rapist, and looked through 12 volumes of photographs from police files, without identifying the man who had raped her. Two days later she was taken to another police station, where she examined more pictures. A police officer testified at the subsequent trial of Summitt that,

after a short time, she pointed to the defendant's picture and said: "This is the man that raped me.

Page 345

There's no doubt about it, this is Jimbo, the man that raped me."

In addition to the officer, the prosecutrix and her stepfather as witnesses for the prosecution described the prosecutrix's examination of the police photographs, and the prosecutrix testified that Summitt was the man who had raped her. There was extensive cross-examination.

The Supreme Court of Kentucky found

no error in the trial court's refusal to conduct a suppression hearing and no semblance of impermissible suggestiveness in the identification procedure.

Summitt v. Commonwealth, 550 S.W.2d 548, 550 (1977). Summitt then sought a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, but that court found no constitutional error. The Court of Appeals, as in the consolidated Watkins case, affirmed the judgment of the District Court, 608 F.2d 247.

We granted certiorari to consider the constitutional claim asserted by both petitioners throughout their state and federal court proceedings. Sub nom. Watkins v. Bordenkircher and Summitt v. Bordenkircher, 445 U.S. 926.

II

The issue before us is not, of course, whether a trial court acts prudently in holding a hearing out of the presence of the jury to determine the admissibility of identification evidence. The prudence of such a hearing has been emphasized by many decisions in the Courts of Appeals, most of which have in various ways admonished trial courts to use that procedure.2 The

Page 346

issue here, rather, is whether such a hearing is required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In urging an affirmative answer, the petitioners first cite cases holding that a defendant has a right to the presence of his counsel at a post-indictment lineup, e.g., United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, and that an identification procedure, in the absence [101 S.Ct. 658] of a lineup, may be so defective as to deprive a defendant of due process of law, e.g., Stovall v. Denno, 388 U.S. 293. The petitioners then analogize their cases to Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, in which this Court enunciated a defendant's right "to have a fair hearing and a reliable determination on the issue of voluntariness," id. at 377, and in which the Court declared unconstitutional a New York procedure which gave the jury whet was in practice unreviewable discretion to decide whether a confession was or was not voluntary.

The petitioners contend that Jackson v. Denno established a per se due process right to a...

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337 practice notes
  • Expert testimony on eyewitness identification: a new pair of glasses for the jury.
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    • American Criminal Law Review Vol. 32 Nbr. 4, June 1995
    • June 22, 1995
    ...jurors the need to apply their own common sense when analyzing the reliability of an eyewitness identification. (1.) Watkins v. Sowders, 449 U.S. 341, 352 (1981) (Brennan, J., dissenting) (quoting Elizabeth F.Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony 19 (1979)). (2.) See Elizabeth F. Loftus, Ten Years i......
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    ...461 A.2d 1037 (D.C. 1983), 30.07(c) Waters, State ex rel. Missouri Public Defender v., 370 S.W.3d 592 (Mo. 2012), 6.06 Watkins v. Sowders, 449 U.S. 341 (1981), 25.01 Watson, People v., 36 Ill. 2d 228, 221 N.E.2d 645 (1966), Watson, United States v., 423 U.S. 411 (1976), 23.07, 23.18(a) Wats......
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  • Expert testimony on eyewitness identification: a new pair of glasses for the jury.
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Vol. 32 Nbr. 4, June 1995
    • June 22, 1995
    ...jurors the need to apply their own common sense when analyzing the reliability of an eyewitness identification. (1.) Watkins v. Sowders, 449 U.S. 341, 352 (1981) (Brennan, J., dissenting) (quoting Elizabeth F.Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony 19 (1979)). (2.) See Elizabeth F. Loftus, Ten Years i......
  • Witnessing the witness: the case for exclusion of eyewitness expert testimony.
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    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 86 Nbr. 2, March 2011
    • March 1, 2011
    ...(10) See infra Part III.C. (11) PATRICK M. WALL, EYE-WITNESS IDENTIFICATION IN CRIMINAL CASES 19 (1965). (12) Watkins v. Sowders, 449 U.S. 341,352 (1981) (Brennan, J., dissenting) (quoting ELIZABETH F. LOFTUS, EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY 19 (1979)). (13) 621 F. Supp. 2d 1207 (M.D. Ala. 2009), aff'......
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    ...461 A.2d 1037 (D.C. 1983), 30.07(c) Waters, State ex rel. Missouri Public Defender v., 370 S.W.3d 592 (Mo. 2012), 6.06 Watkins v. Sowders, 449 U.S. 341 (1981), 25.01 Watson, People v., 36 Ill. 2d 228, 221 N.E.2d 645 (1966), Watson, United States v., 423 U.S. 411 (1976), 23.07, 23.18(a) Wats......
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