Ashcraft v. State of Tennessee

Citation64 S.Ct. 921,88 L.Ed. 1192,322 U.S. 143
Decision Date01 May 1944
Docket NumberNo. 391,391
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Messrs. James F. Bickers and Grover N. McCormick, both of Memphis, Tenn., for petitioners.

Mr. Nat Tipton, of Nashville, Tenn., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

About three o'clock on the morning of Thursday, June 5, 1941, Mrs. Zelma Ida Ashcraft got in her automobile at her home in Memphis, Tennessee, and set out on a trip to visit her mother's home in Kentucky. Late in the afternoon of the same day her car was observed a few miles out of Memphis, standing on the wrong side of a road which she would likely have taken on her journey. Just off the road, in a slough, her lifeless body was found. On her head were cut places inflicted by blows sufficient to have caused her death. Petitioner Ware, age 20, a Negro, was indicted in a state court and found guilty of her murder. Petitioner Ashcraft, age 45, a white man, husband of the deceased, charged with having hired Ware to commit the murder, was tried jointly with Ware and convicted as an accessory before the fact. Both were sentenced to ninety-nine years in the state peniten- tiary. The Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed the convictions.

In applying to us for certiorari, Ware and Ashcraft urged that alleged confessions were used at their trial which had been extorted from them by state law enforcement officers in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that 'solely and alone' on the basis of these confessions they had been convicted. Their contentions raised a federal question which the record showed to be substantial and we brought both cases here for review. Upon oral argument before this Court Tennessee's legal representatives conceded that the convictions could not be sustained without the confessions but defended their use upon the ground that they were not compelled but were 'freely and voluntarily made.'

The record discloses that neither the trial court nor the Tennessee Supreme Court actually held as a matter of fact that petitioners' confessions were 'freely and voluntarily made.' The trial court heard evidence on the issue out of the jury's hearing, but did not itself determine from that evidence that the confessions were voluntary. Instead it over-ruled Ashcraft's objection to the use of his alleged confession with the statement that, 'This Court is not able to hold, as a matter of law, that reasonable minds might not differ on the question of whether or not that alleged confession was voluntarily obtained.' And it likewise over-ruled Ware's objection to use of his alleged confession, stating that 'the reasonable minds of twelve men might * * * differ as to * * * whether Ware's confession was voluntary, and * * * therefore, that is a question of fact for the jury to pass on.'1 Nor did the State Supreme Court review the evidence pertaining to the confessions and affirmatively hold them voluntary. In sustaining the petitioners' convictions, one Justice dissenting, it went no further than to point out that, 'The trial judge * * * held * * * he could not say that the confessions were not voluntarily made and, therefore, permitted them to go to the jury', and to declare that it, likewise, was 'unable to say that the confessions were not freely and voluntarily made.'2

If, therefore, the question of the voluntariness of the two confessions was actually decided at all it was by the jury. And the jury was charged generally on the subject of the two confessions as follows:

'I further charge you that if verbal or written statements made by the defendants freely and voluntarily and without fear of punishment or hope of reward, have been proven to you in this case, you may take them into consideration with all of the other facts and circumstances in the case. * * * In statements made at the time of the arrest, you may take into consideration the condition of the minds of the prisoners owing to their arrest and whether they were influenced by motives of hope or fear, to make the statements. Such a statement is competent evidence against the defendant who makes it and is not competent evidence against the other defendant. * * * You cannot consider it for any purpose against the other defendant.'

Concerning Ashcraft's alleged confession this general charge constituted the sole instruction to the jury.3 But with regard to Ware's alleged confession the jury further was instructed:

'It is his (Ware's) further theory that he was induced by the fear of violence at the hands of a mob and by fear of the officers of the law to confess his guilt of the crime charged against him, but that such confession was false and that he had nothing whatsoever to do with, and no knowledge of the alleged crime. If you believe the theory of the defendant, Ware, * * * it is your duty to acquit him.'

Having submitted the two alleged confessions to the jury in this manner, the trial court instructed the jury that:

'what the proof may show you, if anything, that the defendants have said against themselves, the law presumes to be true, but anything the defendants have said in their own behalf, you are not obliged to believe. * * *'

This treatment of the confessions by the two State courts, the manner of the confessions' submission to the jury, and the emphasis upon the great weight to be given confessions make all the more important the kind of 'independent examination' of petitioners' claims which, in any event, we are bound to make. Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 237, 238, 62 S.Ct. 280, 290, 86 L.Ed. 166. Our duty to make that examination could not have been 'foreclosed by the finding of a court, or the verdict of a jury, or both.' Id. We proceed therefore to consider the evidence relating to the circumstances out of which the alleged confessions came.

First, as to Ashcraft. Ashcraft was born on an Arkansas farm. At the age of eleven he left the farm and became a farm hand working for others. Years later he gravitated into construction work, finally becoming a skilled dragline and steam shovel operator. Uncontradicted evidence in the record was that he had acquired for himself 'an excellent reputation.' In 1929 he married the deceased Zelma Ida Ashcraft. Childless, they accumulated, apparently through Ashcraft's earnings, a very modest amount of jointly held property including bank accounts and an equity in the home in which they lived. The Supreme Court of Tennessee found 'nothing to show but what the home life of Ashcraft and the deceased was pleasant and happy.' Several of Mrs. Ashcraft's friends who were guests at the Ashcraft home on the night before her tragic death testified that both husband and wife appeared to be in a happy frame of mind.

The officers first talked to Ashcraft about 6 P.M. on the day of his wife's murder as he was returning home from work. Informed by them of the tragedy, he was taken to an undertaking establishment to identify her body which previously had been identified only by a driver's license. From there he was taken to the county jail where he conferred with the officers until about 2 A.M. No clues of ultimate value came from this conference, though it did result in the officers' holding and interrogating the Ashcrafts' maid and several of her friends. During the following week the officers made extensive investigations in Ashcraft's neighborhood and elsewhere and further conferred with Ashcraft himself on several occasions, but none of these activities produced tangible evidence pointing to the identity of the murderer.

Then, early in the evening of Saturday, June 14, the officers came to Ashcraft's home and 'took him into custody.' In the words of the Tennessee Supreme Court,

'They took him to an office or room on the northwest corner of the fifth Floor of the Shelby County jail. This office is equipped with all sorts of crime and detective devices such as a fingerprint outfit, cameras, high-powered lights, and such other devices as might be found in a homicide investigating office. * * * It appears that the officers placed Ashcraft at a table in this room on the fifth floor of the county jail with a light over his head and began to quiz him. They questioned him in relays until the following Monday morning, June 16, 1941, around nine-thirty or ten o'clock. It appears that Ashcraft from Saturday evening at seven o'clock until Monday morning at approximately nine-thirty never left this homicide room of the fifth floor.'4

Testimony of the officers shows that the reason they questioned Ashcraft 'in relays' was that they became so tired they were compelled to rest. But from 7:00 Saturday evening until 9:30 Monday morning Ashcraft had no rest. One officer did say that he gave the suspect a single five minutes respite, but except for this five minutes the procedure consisted of one continuous stream of questions.

As to what happened in the fifth-floor jail room during this thirty-six hour secret examination the testimony follows the usual pattern and is in hopeless conflict.5 Ashcraft swears that the first thing said to him when he was taken into custody was, 'Why in hell did you kill your wife?'; that during the course of the examination he was threatened and abused in various ways; and that as the hours passed his eyes became blinded by a powerful electric light, his body became weary, and the strain on his nerves became unbearable.6 The officers, on the other hand, swear that throughout the questioning they were kind and considerate. They say that they did not accuse Ashcraft of the murder until four hours after he was brought to the jail building, though they freely admit that from that time on their barrage of questions was constantly directed at him on the assumption that he was the murderer. Together with other persons whom they brought in on Monday morning to witness the culmination of the thirty-six hour ordeal the officers declare that at that time...

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  • People v. Sigal
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    • October 30, 1963
    ...confession. 2 Interrogation during a prolonged period of incommunicado detention may be inherently coercive. (Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 154, 64 S.Ct. 921, 88 L.Ed. 1192.) Where a period of unbroken interrogation is not so extended as to be physically and mentally exhausting, its ......
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    ...S.Ct. 1676, 12 L.Ed.2d 793; Haynes v. Washington (1962) 373 U.S. 203, 515, 83 S.Ct. 1336, 10 L.Ed.2d 513; Ashcraft v. Tennessee (1943) 322 U.S. 143, 147, 64 S.Ct. 921, 88 L.Ed. 1192; Lisenba v. California, supra, 314 U.S. 219, 237, 62 S.Ct. 280, 86 L.Ed. 166; Chambers v. Florida (1939) 309 ......
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