Brooks v. Tennessee 8212 5313

Decision Date07 June 1972
Docket NumberNo. 71,71
Citation32 L.Ed.2d 358,92 S.Ct. 1891,406 U.S. 605
PartiesDonald L. BROOKS, Petitioner, v. State of TENNESSEE. —5313
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

1. Tennessee's statutory requirement that a defendant in a criminal proceeding 'desiring to testify shall do so before any other testimony for the defense is heard by the court trying the case' violates the defendant's privilege against self-incrimination. A defendant may not be penalized for remaining silent at the close of the State's case by being excluded from the stand later in the trial. Pp. 1892—1895.

2. The Tennessee rule also infringes the defendant's constitutional rights by depriving him of the 'guiding hand of counsel,' in deciding not only whether the defendant will testify but, if so, at what stage. P. 1895.

Jerry H. Summers, for petitioner.

Robert E. Kendrick, Nashville, Tenn., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was tried and convicted in the Circuit Court of Hamilton County, Tennessee, on charges of armed robbery and unlawful possession of a pistol. During the trial, at the close of the State's case, defense counsel moved to delay petitioner's testimony until after other defense witnesses had testified. The trial court denied this motion on the basis of Tenn.Code Ann. § 40—2403 (1955), which requires that a criminal defendant 'desiring to testify shall do so before any other testimony for the defense is heard by the court trying the case.'1 Although the prosecutor agreed to waive the statute, the trial court refused, stating that 'the law is, as you know it to be, that if a defendant testifies he has to testify first.' The defense called two witnesses, but petitioner himself did not take the stand.

Following the denial of his motion for new trial, petitioner appealed his conviction to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which overruled his assignments of error, including his claim that § 40—2403 violated the State and Federal Constitutions. The Supreme Court of Tennessee denied review, and we granted certiorari to consider whether the requirement that a defendant testify first violates the Federal Constitution. 404 U.S. 955, 92 S.Ct. 328, 30 L.Ed.2d 271 (1971). We reverse.


The rule that a defendant must testify first is related to the ancient practice of sequestering prospective witnesses in order to prevent their being influenced by other testimony in the case. See 6 J. Wigmore, Evidence § 1837 (3d ed. 1940). Because the criminal defendant is entitled to be present during trial, and thus cannot be sequestered, the requirement that he precede other defense witnesses was developed by court decision and statute as an alternative means of minimizing this influence as to him. According to Professor Wigmore, '(t)he reason for this rule is the occasional readiness of the interested person to adapt his testimony, when offered later, to victory rather than to veracity, so as to meet the necessities as laid open by prior witnesses . . .' Id., at § 1869.

Despite this traditional justification, the validity of the requirement has been questioned in a number of jurisdictions as a limitation upon the defendant's freedom to decide whether to take the stand. Two federal courts have rejected the contention, holding that a trial court does not abuse its discretion by requiring the defendant to testify first. United States v. Shipp, 359 F.2d 185, 189—190 (CA6 1966); Spaulding v. United States, 279 F.2d 65, 66—67 (CA9 1960). In Shipp, however, the dissenting judge strongly objected to the rule, stating:

'If the man charged with crime takes the witness stand in his own behalf, any and every arrest and conviction, even for lesser felonies, can be brought before the jury by the prosecutor, and such evidence may have devastating and deadly effect, although unrelated to the offense charged. The decision as to whether the defendant in a criminal case shall take the stand is, therefore, often of utmost importance, and counsel must, in many cases, meticulously balance the advantages and disadvantages of the prisoner's becoming a witness in his own behalf. Why, then, should a court insist that the accused must testify before any other evidence is introduced in his behalf, or be completely foreclosed from testifying thereafter? . . . This savors of judicial whim, even though sanctioned by some authorities; and the cause of justice and a fair trial cannot be subjected to such a whimsicality of criminal procedure.' 359 F.2d, at 190—191.

Other courts have followed this line of reasoning in striking down the rule as an impermissible restriction on the defendant's freedom of choice. In the leading case of Bell v. State, 66 Miss. 192, 5 So. 389 (1889), the court held the requirement to be reversible error, saying:

'It must often be a very serious question with the accused and his counsel whether he shall be placed upon the stand as a witness, and subjected to the hazard of cross-examination, and one which cannot be a question that he is not required to decide until upon a full survey of all the case, as developed by the state, and met by witnesses on his own behalf. He may intelligently weigh the advantages and disadvantages of his situation, and, thus advised, determine how to act. Whether he shall testify or not; if so, at what stage in the progress of his defense,—are equally submitted to the free and unrestricted choice of one accused of crime, and are in the very nature of things beyond the control or direction of the presiding judge. Control as to either is coercion, and coercion is denial of freedom of action.' Id., at 194, 5 So., at 389.

In Nassif v. District of Columbia, 201 A.2d 519 (DC Ct.App.1964), the court adopted the language and reasoning of Bell in concluding that the trial court had erred in applying the rule.

Although Bell, Nassif, and the Shipp dissent were not based on constitutional grounds, we are persuaded that the rule embodied in § 40—2403 is an impermissible restriction on the defendant's right against self-incrimination, 'to remain silent unless he chooses to speak in the unfettered exercise of his own will, and to suffer no penalty . . . for such silence.' Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 8, 84 S.Ct. 1489, 1493, 12 L.Ed.2d 653 (1964). As these opinions demonstrate, a defendant's choice to take the stand carries with it serious risks of impeachment and cross-examination; it 'may open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence which is damaging to his case,' McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 213, 91 S.Ct. 1454, 1470, 28 L.Ed.2d 711 (1971), including, now, the use of some confessions for impeachment purposes that would be excluded from the State's case in chief because of constitutional defects. Harris v. New York, 401 U.S. 222, 91 S.Ct. 643, 28 L.Ed.2d 1 (1971). Although 'it is not thought inconsistent with the enlightened administration of criminal justice to require the defendant to weigh such pros and cons in deciding whether to testify,' McGautha v. California, supra, 402 U.S., at 215, 91 S.Ct., at 1471, none would deny that the choice itself may pose serious dangers to the success of an accused's defense.

Although a defendant will usually have some idea of the strength of his evidence, he cannot be absolutely certain that his witnesses will testify as expected or that they will be effective on the stand. They may collapse under skillful and persistent cross-examination, and through no fault of their own they may fail to impress the jury as honest and reliable witnesses. In addition, a defendant is sometimes compelled to call a hostile prosecution witness as his own.2 Unless the State pro- vides for discovery depositions of prosecution witnesses, which Tennessee apparently does not,3 the defendant is unlikely to know whether this testimony will prove entirely favorable.

Because of these uncertainties, a defendant may not know at the close of the State's case whether his own testimony will be necessary or even helpful to his cause. Rather than risk the dangers of taking the stand, he might prefer to remain silent at that point, putting off his testimony until its value can be realistically assessed. Yet, under the Tennessee rule, he cannot make that choice 'in the unfettered exercise of his own will.' Section 40—2403 exacts a price for his silence by keeping him off the stand entirely unless he chooses to testify first.4 This, we think, casts a heavy burden on a defendant's otherwise unconditional right not to take the stand.5 The rule, in other words, 'cuts down on the privilege (to remain silent) by making its assertion costly.' Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 614, 85 S.Ct. 1229, 1233, 14 L.Ed.2d 106 (1965).6

Although the Tennessee statute does reflect a state interest in preventing testimonial influence, we do not regard that interest as sufficient to override the defendant's right to remain silent at trial.7 This is not to imply that there may be no risk of a defendant's coloring his testimony to conform to what has gone before. But our adversary system reposes judgment of the credibility of all witnesses in the jury. Pressuring the defendant to take the stand, by foreclosing later testimony if he refuses, is not a constitutionally permissible means of ensuring his honesty. It fails to take into account the very real and legitimate concerns that might motivate a defendant to exercise his right of silence. And it may compel even a wholly truthful defendant, who might otherwise decline to testify for legitimate reasons, to subject himself to impeachment and cross-examination at a time when the strength of his other evidence is not yet clear. For these reasons we hold that § 40 2403 violates an accused's constitutional right to remain silent insofar as it requires him to testify first for the defense or not at all.


For closely related reasons we also regard the Tennessee rule as an infringement on the defendant's right of due process as defined...

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