Blackburn v. State of Alabama

Decision Date11 January 1960
Docket NumberNo. 50,50
Citation361 U.S. 199,4 L.Ed.2d 242,80 S.Ct. 274
PartiesJesse BLACKBURN, Petitioner, v. STATE OF ALABAMA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Truman Hobbs, Montgomery, Ala., for petitioner.

Mr. Paul T. Gish, Jr., Montgomery, Ala., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Jesse Blackburn was tried in the Circuit Court of Colbert County, Alabama, on a charge of robbery, found guilty, and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment. By far the most damaging piece of evidence against him was his confession, which he persistently maintained had not been made voluntarily.1 The record seemed to provide substantial support for this contention, and we granted certiorari because of a grave doubt whether the judgment could stand if measured against the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. 359 U.S. 1010, 79 S.Ct. 1147, 3 L.Ed.2d 1035. Plenary hearing has hardened this doubt into firm conviction: Jesse Blackburn has been deprived of his liberty without due process of law.

The crime with which Blackburn was charged was the robbery of a mobile store on April 19, 1948. By that date Blackburn, a 24-year-old Negro, had suffered a lengthy siege of mental illness. He had served in the armed forces during World War II, but had been discharged in 1944 as permanently disabled by a psychosis. He was thereupon placed in an institution and given medical treatment over extended periods until February 14, 1948, when he was released from a Veterans Administration hospital for a ten-day leave in the care of his sister. He failed to return to the hospital and consequently was discharged on May 24, 1948. The robbery of which he stands convicted occurred during this period of unauthorized absence from a mental ward. Blackburn's medical records further disclose that from 1946 he was classified by the Veterans Administration as 100 percent 'incompetent' and that at the time of his discharge from the hospital both his diagnosis of 'schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type' and his characterization as 'incompetent' remained unchanged.

This does not by any means end the record of Blackburn's history of mental illness. He was arrested shortly following the robbery, and some time after his confession on May 8, 1948, the Sheriff reported to the circuit judge that Blackburn had exhibited symptoms of insanity. The judge thereupon had Blackburn examined by three physicians, and after receiving their report he concluded that there was 'reasonable ground to believe that the defendant was insane either at the time of the commission of (the) offense or at the present time.' In accordance with the procedure prescribed by Alabama law,2 the judge then directed the Superintendent of the Alabama State Hospitals to convene a lunacy commission. When the commission unanimously declared Blackburn insane, the judge committed him to the Alabama State Hospital for the mentally ill until he should be 'restored to his right mind.'3 Blackburn escaped from the hospital once, only to be apprehended on another charge, declared insane by a second Alabama circuit judge, and sent back to the hospital. Before his return he was examined by another set of doctors who diagnosed his mental condition as 'Schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type' and declared that he was 'Insane, incompetent, and should be placed in (an) insane hospital.' Except for this brief interlude, Blackburn remained in the hospital for over four years, from July 1948 to October 1952, at which time he was declared mentally competent to stand trial.

At his trial, Blackburn entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. He testified that he could remember nothing about the alleged crime, the circumstances surrounding it, his arrest, his confession, his commitment to the State Hospital, or the early period of his treatment there. He denied the truth of the confession, but admitted that the signature on it appeared to be his. According to a 1944 Army medical report, one aspect of Blackburn's illness was recurrent 'complete amnesia concerning his behaviour.'

When the prosecutor proposed to introduce Blackburn's confession into evidence, his attorney objected, and the judge held a hearing to determine its admissibility. Blackburn's counsel submitted to the judge the depositions of two of the three doctors who had served on the lunacy commission and who had observed Blackburn during his period of treatment at the State Hospital. These depositions incorporated copies of three significant documents. The first was the court order directing examination of Blackburn by a lunacy commission. This order mentioned Blackburn's previous treatment in a mental ward and two of his prior commitments to mental institutions. The second paper was the lunacy commission's report, in which three state-employed doctors had expressed their opinion that Blackburn was insane both at the time of his admission to the hospital on July 29, 1948, and at the time of the robbery on April 19, 1948. Finally, the depositions set forth the order which permanently committed Blackburn to the State Hospital. In addition to attesting to the accuracy of these doctuments, the deponents set forth in detail their opinion of Blackburn's mental condition. Dr. Harry S. Rowe, the Assistant Superintendent of the Hospital who had worked since 1923 exclusively with psychopathic patients, stated that as a member of the lunacy commission he had participated in its investigation and in the submission of its report. Dr. Rowe also said that he had interviewed Blackburn on many occasions since his commitment and that he not only still thought Blackburn had been insane on the date of the crime but also believed he 'most probably (had been) insane and incompetent' on May 8, 1948, when he had confessed. These opinions of Dr. Rowe were seconded by Dr. J. S. Tarwater, a psychiatrist who was Superintendent of the Alabama State Hospitals.

To counter this evidence, the prosecutor introduced the deposition of the third member of the lunacy commission, Dr. A. M. Richards, a general practitioner who had spent the previous twelve years treating mental patients and who was a staff member of the State Hospital. The doctor's answers to petitioner's interrogatories were in harmony with the depositions of Drs. Tarwater and Rowe: Dr. Richards acknowledged that he had served on the lunacy commission, that he had signed the report, and that he had concurred in the finding that Blackburn had been insane on the date of the crime. He disclaimed having any other information of value, and noted in response to a cross-interrogatory that Blackburn had been 'up on the criminal ward and he was such a nuisance until I didn't see him often.' In his answers to other cross-interrogatories, however, Dr. Richards executed an astonishing about-face by opining that Blackburn had been 'normal' since he first saw him, that his mental condition was 'normal' on the date of the crime and 'good' on the date of the confession, and that he had never seen Blackburn suffer 'psychotic episodes.' Even this portion of the deposition is not without incongruity, however, for Dr. Richards' response to one cross-interrogatory was that he did not believe Blackburn had experienced lucid intervals.

Evidence concerning the circumstances surrounding the making of the confession was supplied by the Chief Deputy Sheriff. He testified that the interrogation had consumed 'something like, maybe five or six hours' on May 8, 1948, and that no one had threatened Blackburn in any way. The Chief Deputy composed the statement in narrative form on the basis of Blackburn's answers to the various questions asked by the officers, and Blackburn signed the confession two days later. When asked about Blackburn's behavior, the witness responded that Blackburn had 'answered like any normal person I have examined.' After the judge ruled that the confession would be admitted, but before it was actually admitted, the Chief Deputy described in somewhat greater detail—this time to the jury—the manner in which the confession had been obtained. It developed that the examination had begun at approximately one o'clock in the afternoon and had continued until ten or eleven o'clock that evening, with about an hour's break for dinner. Thus it was established that the questioning went on for eight or nine hours rather than five or six. Apparently most of the interrogation took place in closely confined quarters—a room about four by six or six by eight feet—in which as many as three officers had at times been present with Blackburn. The Chief Deputy conceded that Blackburn said he had been a patient in a mental institution, but claimed that Blackburn also stated he had been released, and avowed that Blackburn 'talked sensible and give (sic) sensible answers,' was clear-eyed, and did not appear nervous.

Blackburn's counsel again objected to admission of the statement, but the objection was overruled and the confession was submitted to the jury. After the Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment and held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require exclusion of the confession, Blackburn petitioned this Court for certiorari.4 Thus was the constitutional issue raised, decided, and presented to this Court for review.

After according all of the deference to the trial judge's decision which is compatible with our duty to determine constitutional questions,5 we are unable to escape the conclusion that Blackburn's confession can fairly be characterized only as involuntary. Consequently the conviction must be set aside, since this Court, in a line of decisions beginning in 1936 with Brown v. State of Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461, 80 L.Ed. 682, and including cases by now too well known and too numerous to bear citation, has established the principle that the Fourteenth Amendment is grievously breached when an involuntary confession is obtained by state...

To continue reading

Request your trial
1086 cases
  • People v. Sigal
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • October 30, 1963
    ...v. Lopez, 60 A.C. 171, 196, 32 Cal.Rptr. 424, 384 P.2d 16.) Coercion can be mental as well as physical. (Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 206, 80 S.Ct. 274, 4 L.Ed.2d 242.) Evidence of the circumstances surrounding the confession in this case is not in conflict. It is our obligation to e......
  • People v. Hinds
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • April 6, 1984 the course of securing a conviction, wrings a confession out of an accused against his will." (Blackburn v. Alabama (1960) 361 U.S. 199, 206-207, 80 S.Ct. 274, 280, 4 L.Ed.2d 242.) These considerations include society's interests in preserving the "freedom of will" of the individual, det......
  • Hawkins v. Robinson
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
    • November 21, 1973
    ...625, 99 L.Ed. 942 (1955). See Lyons v. Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 605, 64 S.Ct. 1208, 88 L.Ed. 1481 (1944); Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 206, 80 S.Ct. 274, 4 L.Ed.2d 242 (1960); Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 342, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799 (1963); Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14......
  • People v. Johnson
    • United States
    • California Supreme Court
    • January 3, 2022
    ...and ... the blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition." ( Blackburn v. Alabama (1960) 361 U.S. 199, 206, 80 S.Ct. 274, 4 L.Ed.2d 242 ( Blackburn ).) The high court has repeatedly stressed that neither physical violence nor overt threats are required to......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
35 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Carolina Academic Press Federal Habeas Corpus: Cases and Materials (CAP)
    • Invalid date
    ...well as physical, and . . . the blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition." Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 206 (1960). As in Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U.S. 560, 561 (1958), where the Court found that a confession was coerced because the interrogating......
  • Confessions
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 1 - 2016 Contents
    • August 17, 2016
    ...will negate the admissibility of a confession where this weakness is exploited by coercive tactics. Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 80 S.Ct. 274, 4 L.Ed.2d 242 Where a police physician administered a “truthserum” drug to the defendant, the resulting confession was rendered involuntary. ......
  • Confessions
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 1 - 2018 Contents
    • August 17, 2018
    ...1995). Insanity will negate the admissibility of a confession where this weakness is exploited by coercive tactics. Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 80 S.Ct. 274, 4 L.Ed.2d 242 (1960). Where a police physician administered a “truth-serum” drug to the defendant, the resulting confession w......
  • Other pretrial motions
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books California Drunk Driving Law - Volume 1-2 Volume 1
    • March 30, 2022
    ...will ( Reck v. Pate (1961) 367 U.S. 433) or which is not the product of a rational intellect and free will ( Blackburn v. Alabama (1960) 361 U.S. 199) should be suppressed. But see People v. Culver (1973) 10 Cal.3d 542, which upheld the trial court’s finding of voluntariness where the hospi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT