459 U.S. 422 (1983), 81-420, Marshall v. Lonberger

Docket Nº:No. 81-420
Citation:459 U.S. 422, 103 S.Ct. 843, 74 L.Ed.2d 646
Party Name:Marshall v. Lonberger
Case Date:February 22, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 422

459 U.S. 422 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 843, 74 L.Ed.2d 646




No. 81-420

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 22, 1983

Argued October 5, 1982




In an application in a federal court by a state prisoner for a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) establishes a presumption of correctness for

a determination after a hearing on the merits of a factual issue, made by a State court of competent jurisdiction in a proceeding to which the applicant for the writ and the State . . . were parties, evidenced by a written finding, written opinion, or other reliable and adequate written indicia.

An exception to this presumption occurs where the federal habeas court, on reviewing the state court record, concludes that the state court's factual finding "is not fairly supported by the record." Respondent was convicted of murder at a jury trial in an Ohio court. At the trial, the prosecution sought to prove a "specification," for purposes of obtaining the death penalty against respondent. There were admitted into evidence, to be considered only in connection with the specification, a copy of an Illinois indictment, a copy of a so-called "conviction statement," and the transcript of a hearing in an Illinois trial court in which respondent pleaded guilty to charges in the indictment. Before admitting such evidence, the Ohio trial court conducted a hearing to determine whether respondent's guilty plea to the Illinois charge was knowing and voluntary. On review of the Illinois records and upon testimony by respondent as to his recollection of the Illinois proceedings, the court held that respondent [103 S.Ct. 845] had intelligently and voluntarily entered his plea of guilty in the Illinois court. Upholding respondent's murder conviction, the Ohio Court of Appeals held that the specification based on the prior Illinois conviction was adequately proved, and that the trial court did not err in ruling that respondent's guilty plea in the Illinois court was knowing and voluntary, and should be submitted to the jury. Subsequently, respondent brought a habeas corpus proceeding in Federal District Court, which denied relief. The United States Court of Appeals reversed, holding that respondent's plea of guilty to the previous Illinois charge was invalid, and that its admission into evidence at the Ohio trial rendered respondent's ensuing murder conviction unconstitutional. The court, noting that no express finding was made concerning respondent's credibility as a witness, credited his testimony at the Ohio trial court hearing, absent contrary evidence by the State.

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Held: The admission in the Ohio murder trial of respondent's Illinois conviction based upon a guilty plea did not deprive respondent of any federal right. Pp. 430-439.

(a) Whether the Court of Appeals' reassessment of the effect of respondent's testimony at the Ohio trial court hearing was undertaken because of the trial court's failure to make express findings as to respondent's credibility or whether the Court of Appeals felt it should assess for itself the weight that such evidence should have been accorded by the Ohio trial court, the Court of Appeals erroneously applied the "fairly supported by the record" standard enunciated in § 2254(d). The Court of Appeals' reliance on respondent's testimony and the fact that the State produced no contrary evidence are wide of the mark for purposes of deciding whether factual findings are fairly supported by the record. Section 2254(d) gives federal habeas courts no license to redetermine credibility of witnesses whose demeanor has been observed by the state trial court but not by them. Pp. 432-436.

(b) Respondent must be presumed to have been informed, either by his lawyers or at one of the Illinois presentencing proceedings, of the charges on which he was indicted in Illinois. Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637. Applying this standard to the factual determinations arising from the Ohio trial court proceedings which were "fairly supported by the record" within the meaning of § 2254(d), this Court cannot accept the Court of Appeals' conclusion that respondent's guilty plea to the Illinois charge was not voluntary and knowing in the constitutional meaning of those terms. Pp. 436-438.

(c) Because respondent's prior conviction was valid, this case is controlled by Spencer v. Texas, 385 U.S. 554, which is reaffirmed. The Due Process Clause does not permit the federal courts to engage in a finely tuned review of the wisdom of state evidentiary rules. The jury in respondent's trial was instructed to consider the prior conviction only in determining whether the specification was proved, and it is a "crucial assumption" of the jury trial system that juries will obey their instructions. Moreover, as recognized by the common law, any unfairness resulting from admitting prior convictions generally is balanced by their probative value. Pp. 438-439, n. 6.

651 F.2d 447, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C. J., and WHITE, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 439. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 447. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 447.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue here is whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires the vacation of respondent's Ohio murder conviction. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which granted respondent's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Lonberger v. Jago, 635 F.2d 1189 (1980), and Lonberger v. Jago, 651 F.2d 447 (1981), held that it did. The Court of Appeals held that respondent's plea of guilty to a previous Illinois felony charge, offered and admitted into evidence at his Ohio murder trial, was invalid under Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969). It went on to hold that the admission into evidence of the Illinois conviction at the Ohio trial rendered respondent's ensuing conviction in that proceeding unconstitutional under this Court's decision in Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109 (1967). The State claims that the Court of Appeals exceeded its authority, under our holding in Sumner v. Mata, 449 U.S. 539 (1981), in concluding that the prior Illinois conviction was invalid. It also contends that, even if the Court of Appeals were warranted in so concluding, the admission of that conviction at the Ohio murder trial did not render the Ohio conviction constitutionally infirm. We granted certiorari to consider, inter alia, the interrelationship between Boykin v. Alabama, supra, and Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637 (1976).


There is apparently no dispute with respect to the operative facts which led to respondent's indictment and conviction

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for the murder of Charita Lanier in Toledo, Ohio, on the evening of January 29, 1975. Lanier was brutally murdered in the living room of her home during that evening; blood stains led from the living room to the kitchen, where the victim's partially clothed body was found in a freezer. An autopsy revealed that the victim bled to death after her throat had been slashed, and a bent, blood-stained knife found near the scene of the crime was identified as the murder weapon. The victim's clothing was torn and sperm was detected in her vaginal canal.

The morning after the murder, the victim's children told police that respondent, Robert Lonberger, had been at their home the previous evening. After the children had been sent to their upstairs bedroom, they heard their mother scream. When there was no response to his questions, the older child left his bedroom and went downstairs. The lights were out, and when the child attempted to turn them on, respondent grabbed his hand; he ordered the child back to bed. A pack of cigarettes of respondent's brand was found in the house, and blood-stained articles of clothing were discovered in his possession.

Respondent was indicted by a state grand jury on two counts of "aggravated murder." The first count charged that respondent had murdered Lanier with "prior calculation and design," in violation of Ohio Rev.Code Ann. § 2903.01(A) (1975). The second count charged respondent with murder while committing rape, in violation of Ohio Rev.Code Ann. § 2903.01(B) (1975).1 Both counts of aggravated murder included a "specification," described below, in which the prosecution alleged that respondent previously had been convicted of an "offense of which the gist was the purposeful

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killing of or attempt to kill another." Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2929.04(A)(5) (1975).2

Respondent pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the State sought at trial to [103 S.Ct. 847] prove the specification of prior conviction for attempt to kill by introducing the record of a conviction of respondent in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill. It is the introduction of this conviction into evidence in the Ohio murder trial which has been the focus of constitutional objection on the part of respondent since that time, and upon which the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit based its conclusion that respondent's conviction was constitutionally infirm. Because of its central role in this litigation, we find it desirable to describe in some detail the evidence before the Ohio court relating to this prior conviction.

It is fair to say that, from the time the State first offered the record of the Illinois conviction until the present time, the opposing parties have never agreed as to the historical facts surrounding the acceptance of...

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