Askins v. United States, 13824.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
Writing for the CourtPRETTYMAN, FAHY and DANAHER, Circuit
Citation102 US App. DC 198,251 F.2d 909
PartiesRobert E. ASKINS, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 13824.,13824.
Decision Date16 January 1958

Mr. Edgar H. Brenner, Washington, D. C. (appointed by this Court), for appellant.

Mr. Fred L. McIntyre, Asst. U. S. Atty., with whom Messrs. Oliver Gasch, U. S. Atty., Lewis Carroll and Thomas A. Flannery, Asst. U. S. Attys., were on the brief, for appellee.

Before PRETTYMAN, FAHY and DANAHER, Circuit Judges.

FAHY, Circuit Judge.

On December 29, 1938, appellant brought about the death by poison of a young woman whom he believed to be of ill-repute. He said that he intended to kill all prostitutes in town if he could. He was promptly arrested and on February 1, 1939, was indicted for first degree murder. His outré conduct led the United States Attorney to initiate proceedings which in turn led to a jury verdict that he was of unsound mind. He was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in April 1939. He remained there under treatment for 13 years, when, in February 1952, he was released as a social recovery.

On August 17, 1943, some 14 years ago, while he was in St. Elizabeths, the United States Attorney nol-prossed the indictment of February 1, 1939. Appellant had then been in St. Elizabeths more than 4 years, and he remained there for 9 additional years.

Nevertheless, some 16 years after the homicide, on November 1, 1954, appellant was reindicted for first degree murder, brought to trial, and was convicted of second degree murder.1 We affirmed by a divided court, finding no reversible error by reason of any matter then presented to the court. Askins v. United States, 97 U.S.App.D.C. 407, 231 F.2d 741, certiorari denied 351 U.S. 989, 76 S.Ct. 1054, 100 L.Ed. 1502.

Thereafter appellant filed a motion in the District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (1952) to set aside his conviction on the grounds, raised for the first time, that when he was tried in 1954 the court was without jurisdiction to impose sentence and, also, that the sentence was in violation of his constitutional rights, including his rights under the Sixth Amendment. The case is before us now on his appeal from denial of this motion.

We do not reach the Sixth Amendment question of a speedy trial, for 18 U.S.C. § 3282 (1952) controls our decision. This statute reads:

"Except as otherwise expressly provided by law, no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense, not capital, unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within three years next after such offense shall have been committed."

Second degree murder, of which appellant was convicted, is not a capital offense. By reason of this statute, therefore, appellant may not now be punished for second degree murder, for the indictment resulting in his conviction was not found within three years after the offense but some 16 years after. There is no time limitation upon an indictment for the capital offense of first degree murder, see 18 U.S.C. § 3281 (1952), but a person may not validly be sentenced when convicted of second degree murder on an indictment good for first degree murder but not found within three years after the offense. The language of the federal statute itself and the decisions of numerous courts interpreting comparable statutes make this quite clear. Letcher v. State, 159 Ala. 59, 48 So. 805; People v. Myers, 39 Cal.App. 244, 178 P. 965; Drott v. People, 71 Colo. 383, 206 P. 797; Mitchell v. State, 157 Fla. 121, 25 So.2d 73;2 Perry v. State, 103 Fla. 580, 137 So. 798; Blackmon v. State, 88 Fla. 188, 101 So. 319; State v. Brossette, 163 La. 1035, 113 So. 366; State v. Chevlin, Mo., 284 S.W.2d 563, 567; People v. Di Pasquale, 3d Dep't, 161 App.Div. 196, 146 N.Y.S. 523; McKinney v. State, 96 Tex.Cr.R. 342, 257 S.W. 258; State v. Crank, 105 Utah 332, 142 P.2d 178, 193, 170 A.L.R. 542; State v. King, 140 W.Va. 362, 84 S.E.2d 313, 47 A.L.R.2d 878; State v. Stafford, 89 W.Va. 301, 109 S.E. 326, 330-331.

The United States contends, however, that appellant did not raise this matter on his trial or on his appeal from the judgment of conviction which we affirmed in Askins v. United States, supra. This is true. But 28 U.S.C. § 2255 is plainly designed to permit a question which goes to the validity of the sentence to be raised for decision at any time. When a subject is within the limited class reviewable under section 2255 the fact that it is presented for the first time by motion under that section, though it could have been presented at the trial, at the sentencing, or on appeal from the judgment of conviction, is immaterial. Jordan v. United States District Court, 98 U.S.App.D.C. 160, 233 F.2d 362, reversed on other grounds, 352 U.S. 904, 77 S.Ct. 151, 1 L.Ed.2d 114.3 That this case is within section 2255 we think is clear from the provisions of that section, which read in pertinent part as follows:

"A prisoner in custody under sentence * * * claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the * * * laws of the United States * * * may move the court * * * to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence. * * *
* * * * * *
"* * * If the court finds that * * * the sentence imposed was not authorized by law * * * the court shall vacate and set the judgment aside and shall discharge the prisoner or resentence him or grant a new trial or correct the sentence as may appear appropriate."

A sentence imposed for second degree murder upon an indictment timely for first degree murder, but found more than three years after the offense, is a sentence which is not authorized by law. This we think is plain from 18 U.S.C. § 3282, supra, and the cases we have cited. Appellant could not have objected to being tried on the indictment since it was for first degree murder, as to which there is no time limitation. When, however, the verdict of guilty of second degree murder was rendered, he could have objected to being sentenced, and indeed, he could have requested that only the issue of first degree murder be submitted to the jury. But he lost no right by not doing the latter. He was not required to ask for a verdict of either first degree murder or of not guilty; he could seek a verdict of either second degree murder or of not guilty; and his failure to object to being sentenced did not relieve the court of its own obligation to impose no sentence not authorized by the law applicable to the verdict which was rendered. The question of sentence — punishment — was one for the court. And an unlawful sentence is not made lawful by lack of prompt objection by the person sentenced. One of the explicit purposes of section 2255 is to furnish a means for setting aside a sentence imposed in violation of law whenever its unlawfulness is brought to the attention of the court by motion under that section, as was here done.

When the responsible public officials, or a grand jury, have not initiated an indictment until after three years have elapsed from the date of the alleged offense, the policy of the law evidenced by Act of Congress, section 3282, supra, is that no person shall be punished under such a delayed indictment except for a capital offense, unless there is some period other than three years fixed by statute in respect of the particular offense, which has not been done in respect of second degree murder. A consideration which no doubt entered into the adoption of this policy is applicable generally to statutes of limitations in both civil and criminal proceedings, namely, the handicap in ascertaining the truth after the lapse of years from the events in question.4 The present case furnishes an impressive illustration of the wisdom of this policy, for the principal factual issue to be decided by the jury on the trial of appellant in 1954 was his mental condition sixteen years earlier, on December 29, 1938, the difficulty of ascertaining which is obvious.

In criminal proceedings no doubt Congress also had in mind in enacting statutes of limitations for offenses not capital that punishment is but one means by which a wound to society caused by such a breach of its laws may be healed, or the debt paid, and, moreover, that society is likely to be healthier on the whole if an individual suspected of a noncapital offense is either charged within a specified time, varying with the nature of the offense, or else is relieved of the never-ending possibility of public...

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    • United States
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    ...on motion. If this is not done and a verdict of guilty is rendered, sentence may be lawfully imposed." Askins v. United States, 102 U.S.App.D.C. 198, 202, 251 F.2d 909, 915 (1958) (footnotes omitted).93 Accord, United States v. Kenner, 354 F.2d 780, 785 (2d Cir. 1965), cert. denied, 383 U.S......
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