Burgett v. State of Texas, 53

Decision Date13 November 1967
Docket NumberNo. 53,53
Citation389 U.S. 109,19 L.Ed.2d 319,88 S.Ct. 258
PartiesJames Cleveland BURGETT, Petitioner, v. STATE OF TEXAS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

R. Gordon Gooch, Houston, Tex., for petitioner.

Leon B. Douglas, Austin, Tex., for respondent.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted of 'assault with malice aforethought with intent to murder; repetition of offense.' The jury fixed the punishment at 10 years in the Texas State Penitentiary.1 On appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed petitioner's conviction.2 We granted certiorari, 386 U.S. 931, 87 S.Ct. 959, 17 L.Ed.2d 805.

Petitioner was charged in a five-count indictment. In the first count the State alleged that he had cut one Bradley with a knife and had stabbed at Bradley's throat with intent to kill. Pursuant to the Texas recidivist statutes,3 the remaining counts of the indictment consisted of allegations that petitioner had incurred four previous felony convictions: a Texas conviction for burglary, and three Tennessee convictions for forgery. If these allegations were found to be true, petitioner would be subject to a term of life imprisonment upon conviction of the offense charged in count one.4

Petitioner's counsel filed a pretrial motion to quash the four counts of the indictment referring to the prior convictions for failure to apprise the defense of what the State would attempt to prove.5 The record is silent as to the court's action on this motion. But when the indictment was read to the jury at the beginning of the trial, before any evidence was introduced, the four counts relating to the prior convictions were included.

During the course of the trial, while the jury was present, the State offered into evidence a certified copy of one of the Tennessee convictions. The conviction read in part, 'Came the Assistant Attorney-General for the State and the Defendant in proper person and without Counsel.' Petitioner's counsel objected to the introduction of the record on the ground that the judgment on its face showed that petitioner was not represented by counsel in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. There was no indication in the record that counsel had been waived. The court stated that it would reserve ruling on the objection, apparently to give the State an opportunity to offer any of the other convictions into evidence. The State then offered a second version of the same Tennessee conviction which stated that petitioner had appeared 'in proper person' but did not contain the additional words 'without counsel.' This second version also stated that 'After said jury had heard the evidence, argument of counsel, and the charge of the Court, they retired to consider of their verdict.' It is not clear, however, whether 'counsel' was being used in the singular or plural, and in any event no explanation was offered for the discrepancy between the two records. Petitioner's counsel objected to this section version on the same ground. The court again reserved its ruling.

The State then offered into evidence a certified copy of the indictment in the prior Texas case. Petitioner's counsel indicated he had no objection, and that record was received into evidence. Thereafter, testimony was offered concerning the judgment and sentence in the prior Texas case. After some testimony had been given, the jury was excused and the hearing continued out of its presence. At the conclusion of the hearing, petitioner's attorney objected that the Texas judgment was void on its face under state law. The court sustained that ob- jection, and the record of the Texas conviction was stricken from evidence. At the same time, the court sustained petitioner's objection to the first version of the Tennessee conviction; but overruled the objection to the second version of the same conviction. The jury was then recalled and testimony was heard on the substantive offense charged. The next reference to the prior convictions was when th court instructed the jury not to consider the prior offenses6 for any purpose whatsoever in arriving at the verdict.

Petitioner's motion for a new trial was denied. In the Court of Criminal Appeals, petitioner argued, inter alia, that the court erred in permitting counts two through five of the indictment to be read to the jury at the beginning of the trial, and in failing to sustain petitioner's objection to the admission into evidence of the second version of the Tennessee conviction. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that since petitioner had not suffered the enhanced punishment provided by the recidivist statutes, and since the instruction to disregard the prior offenses had been given, no error was presented.

We do not sit as a court of criminal appeals to review state cases. The States are free to provide such pro- cedures as they choose, including rules of evidence, provided that none of them infringes a guarantee in the Federal Constitution. The recent right-to-counsel cases, starting with Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799, are illustrative of the limitations which the Constitution places on state criminal procedures. Those limitations sometimes touch rules of evidence.

The exclusion of coerced confessions is one example. Chambers v. State of Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 60 S.Ct. 472, 84 L.Ed. 716.

The exclusion of evidence seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments is another. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S.Ct. 1684, 6 L.Ed.2d 1081.

Still another is illustrated by Pointer v. State of Texas, 380 U.S. 400, 85 S.Ct. 1065, 13 L.Ed.2d 923. In that case we held that a transcript of a preliminary hearing had to be excluded from a state criminal trial because the defendant had no lawyer at that hearing, and did not, therefore, have the opportunity to cross-examine the principal witness against him who since that time had left the State. The exclusionary rule that we fashioned was designed to protect the privilege of confrontation guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth.

The same result must follow here. Gideon v. Wainwright established the rule that the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment was applicable to the States by virtue of the Fourteenth, making it unconstitutional to try a person for a felony in a state court unless he had a lawyer or had validly waived one. And that ruling was not limited to prospective applications. See Doughty v. Maxwell, 376 U.S. 202, 84 S.Ct. 702, 11 L.Ed.2d 650; Pickelsimer v. Wainwright, 375 U.S. 2, 84 S.Ct. 80, 11 L.Ed.2d 41. In this case the certified records of the Tennessee conviction on their face raise a presumption that petitioner was denied his right to counsel in the Tennessee proceeding, and therefore that his conviction was void. Presuming waiver of counsel from a silent record is impermissible. Carnley v. Cochran, 369 U.S. 506, 82 S.Ct. 884, 8 L.Ed.2d 70. To permit a conviction obtained in violation of Gideon v. Wainwright to be used against a person either to support guilt or enhance punishment for another offense (see Greer v. Beto, 384 U.S. 269, 86 S.Ct. 1477) is to erode the principle of that case. Worse yet, since the defect in the prior conviction was denial of the right to counsel, the accused in effect suffers anew from the deprivation of that Sixth Amendment right.

The admission of a prior criminal conviction which is constitutionally infirm under the standards of Gideon v. Wainwright is inherently prejudicial and we are unable to say that the instructions to disregard it7 made the constitutional error 'harmless beyond a reasonable doubt' within the meaning of Chapman v. State of California, 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705.

Our decision last Term in Spencer v. State of Texas, 385 U.S. 554, 87 S.Ct. 648, 17 L.Ed.2d 606, is not relevant to our present problem. In Spencer the prior convictions were not presumptively void. Moreover, the contention was that the guilt phase of the trial was prejudiced by the introduction of the evidence of prior crimes. As the Court noted, '(i)n the procedures before us, * * * no specific federal right—such as that dealing with confessions—is involved; reliance is placed solely on a general 'fairness' approach.' Id., at 565, 87 S.Ct. at 654. In this case, however, petitioner's right to counsel, a 'specific federal right,' is being denied anew. This Court cannot permit such a result unless Gideon v. Wainwright is to suffer serious erosion.


Mr. Chief Justice WARREN, concurring.

I am in full agreement with the opinion of the Court and the reasons stated therein for reversing the conviction in this case. However, in view of the terse dissent entered by my Brother Harlan, I feel constrained to add some observations of my own.

The dissent refers to the Court's decision in Spencer v. State of Texas, 385 U.S. 554, 87 S.Ct. 648, 17 L.Ed.2d 606, and the entire thrust of the dissent is reminiscent of that decision of last Term which placed this Court's stamp of approval on the Texas recidivist procedures from which this case evolves. The dissent reminds us that '(w)e do not sit as a court of errors and appeals in state cases.' I would not disagree with that statement is an abstract proposition. But we are not dealing with abstracts in this case. We are dealing with a very real denial of a state criminal defendant's rights as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. We are also told by the dissent that 'this case shows no prosecutorial bad faith or intentional misconduct.' But this misses the mark. We are not limited in our review of constitutional errors in state criminal proceedings to those errors which flow from 'prosecutorial bad faith or intentional misconduct.'1 Our concern is with the effect of those errors, whether well-intentioned or not,2 on the constitutionally protected right of a criminal defendant to a fair and impartial trial.

This case is a classic example of how a...

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