Chambers v. State of Florida

Decision Date12 February 1940
Docket NumberNo. 195,195
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Leon A. Ransom, of Washington, D.C., and S. D. McGill, of Jacksonville, Fla., for petitioners.

Mr. Tyrus A. Norwood, of Tallahassee, Fla., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The grave question presented by the petition for certiorari, granted in forma pauperis,1 is whether proceedings in which confessions were utilized, and which culminated in sentences of death upon four young negro men in the State of Florida, failed to afford the safeguard of that due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment U.S.C.A.Const.2 First. The State of Florida challenges our jurisdiction to look behind the judgments below claiming that the issues of fact upon which petitioners base their claim that due process was denied them have been finally determined because passed upon by a jury. However, use by a State of an improperly obtained confession may constitute a denial of due process of law as guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment.3 Since petitioners have seasonably asserted the right under the Federal Constitution to have their guilt or innocence of a capital crime determined without reliance upon confessions obtained by means proscribed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, we must determine independently whether petitioners' confessions were so obtained, by review of the facts upon which that issue necessarily turns.4

Second. The record shows—

About nine o'clock on the night of Saturday, May 13, 1933, Robert Darcy, an elderly white man, was robbed and murdered in Pompano, Florida, a small town in Broward County about twelve miles from Fort Lauderdale, the County seat. The opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida affirming petitioners' conviction for this crime stated that 'It was one of those crimes that induced an enraged community * * *.'5 And, as the dissenting judge pointed out, 'The murder and robbery of the elderly Mr. Darcy * * * was a most dastardly and atrocious crime. It naturally aroused great and well justified public indignation.'6

Between 9:30 and 10 o'clock after the murder, petitioner Charlie Davis was arrested, and within the next twenty-four hours from twenty-five to forty negroes living in the community, including petitioners Williamson, Chambers and Woodward, were arrested without warrants and confined in the Broward County jail, at Fort Lauderdale. On the night of the crime, attempts to trail the murderers by bloodhounds brought J. T. Williams, a convict guard, into the proceedings. From then until confessions were obtained and petitioners were sentenced, he took a prominent part. About 11 P.M. on the following Monday, May 15, the sheriff and Williams took several of the imprisoned negroes, including Williamson and Chambers, to the Dade County jail at Miami. The sheriff testified that they were taken there because he felt a possibility of mob violence and 'wanted to give protection to every prisoner * * * in jail.' Evidence of petitioners was that on the way to Miami a motorcycle patrolman drew up to the car in which the men were riding and the sheriff 'told the cop that he had some negroes that he * * * taking down to Miami to escape a mob.' This statement was not denied by the sheriff in his testimony and Williams did not testify at all; Williams apparently has now disappeared. Upon order of Williams, petitioner Williamson was kept in the death cell of the Dade County jail. The prisoners thus spirited to Miami were returned to the Fort Lauderdale jail the next day, Tuesday.

It is clear from the evidence of both the State and petitioners that from Sunday, May 14, to Saturday, May 20, the thirty to forty negro suspects were subjected to questioning and cross questioning (with the exception that several of the suspects were in Dade County jail over one night). From the afternoon of Saturday, May 20, until sunrise of the 21st, petitioners and possibly one or two others underwent persistent and repeated questioning. The Supreme Court of Florida said the questioning 'was in progress several days and all night before the confessions were secured' and referred to the last night as an 'all night vigil.' The sheriff who supervised the procedure of continued interrogation testified that he questioned the prisoners 'in the day time all the week,' but did not question them during any night before the all night vigil of Saturday, May 20, because after having 'questioned them all day * * * (he) was tired.' Other evidence of the State was 'that the officers of Broward County were in that jail almost continually during the whole week questioning these boys, and other boys, in connection with this' case.

The process of repeated questioning took place in the jailer's quarters on the fourth floor of the jail. During the week following their arrests and until their confessions were finally acceptable to the State's attorney in the early dawn of Sunday, May 21st, petitioners and their fellow prisoners were led one at a time from their cells to the questioning room, quizzed, and returned to their cells to await another turn. So far as appears, the prisoners at no time during the week were permitted to see or confer with counsel or a single friend or relative. When carried singly from his cell and subjected to questioning, each found himself, a single prisoner, surrounded in a fourth floor jail room by four to ten men, the county sheriff, his deputies, a convict guard, and other white officers and citizens of the community.

The testimony is in conflict as to whether all four petitioners were continually threatened and physically mistreated until they finally, in hopeless desperation and fear of their lives, agreed to confess on Sunday morning just after daylight. Be that as it may, it is certain that by Saturday, May 20th, five days of continued questioning had elicited no confession. Admittedly, a concentration of effort—directed against a small number of prisoners including petitioners—on the part of the questioners, principally the sheriff and Williams, the convict guard, began about 3:30 that Saturday afternoon. From that hour on, with only short intervals for food and rest for the questioners—'They all stayed up all night.' 'They bring one of them at a time backwards and forwards * * * until they confessed.' And Williams was present and participating that night, during the whole of which the jail cook served coffee and sandwiches to the men who 'grilled' the prisoners.

Sometime in the early hours of Sunday, the 21st, probably about 2:30 A.M., Woodward apparently 'broke'— as one of the State's witnesses put it—after a fifteen or twenty minute period of questioning by Williams, the sheriff and the constable 'one right after the other.' The State's attorney was awakened at his home, and called to the jail. He came, but was dissatisfied with the confession of Woodward which he took down in writing at that time, and said something like 'tear this paper up, that isn't what I want, when you get something worth while call me.'7 This same State's attorney conducted the State's case in the circuit court below and also made himself a witness, but did not testify as to why Woodward's first alleged confession was unsatisfactory to him. The sheriff did, however:

'A. No, it wasn't false, part of it was true and part of it wasn't; Mr. Maire (the State's attorney) said there wasn't enough. It wasn't clear enough.

'. . .

'Q. * * * Was that voluntarily made at that time? A. Yes, sir.

'Q. It was voluntarily made that time. A. Yes, sir.

'Q. You didn't consider it sufficient? A. Mr. Maire.

'Q. Mr. Maire told you that it wasn't sufficient, so you kept on questioning him until the time you got him to make a free and voluntary confession of other matters that he hadn't included in the first? A. No, sir, we questioned him there and we caught him in lies.

'Q. Caught all of them telling lies? A. Caught every one of them lying to us that night, yes, sir.

'Q. Did you tell them they were lying? A. Yes, sir.

'Q. Just how would you tell them that? A. Just like I am talking to you.

'Q. You said 'Jack, you told me a lie'? A. Yes, sir.'

After one week's constant denial of all guilt, petitioners 'broke.'

Just before sunrise, the State officials got something 'worthwhile' from petitioners which the State's attorney would 'want'; again he was called; he came; in the presence of those who had carried on and witnessed the all night questioning, he caused his questions and petitioners' answers to be stenographically reported. These are the confessions utilized by the State to obtain the judgments upon which petitioners were sentenced to death. No formal charges had been brought before the confessions. Two days thereafter, petitioners were indicted, were arraigned and Williamson and Woodward pleaded guilty; Chambers and Davis pleaded not guilty. Later the sheriff, accompanied by Williams, informed an attorney who presumably had been appointed to defend Davis that Davis wanted his plea of not guilty withdrawn. This was done, and Davis then pleaded guilty. When Chambers was tried, his conviction rested upon his confession and testimony of the other three confessors. The convict guard and the sheriff 'were in the Court room sitting down in a seat.' And from arrest until sentenced to death, petitioners were never—either in jail or in court—wholly removed from the constant observation, influence, custody and control of those whose persistent pressure brought about the sunrise confessions.

Third. The scope and operation of the Fourteenth Amendment have been fruitful sources of controversy in our constitutional history.8 However, in view of its his- torical setting and the wrongs which called it into being, the due process provision of the Fourteenth Amendment—just as that in the Fifth—has led few to doubt that it was intended to guarantee...

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