Crooker v. State of California

Decision Date30 June 1958
Docket NumberNo. 178,178
PartiesJohn Russell CROOKER, Jr., Petitioner, v. STATE OF CALIFORNIA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 79 S.Ct. 12.

Mr. Robert W. Armstrong, Los Angeles, Cal., for petitioner.

Mr. William E. James, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, under sentence of death for the murder of his paramour, claims that his conviction in a California court violates Fourteenth Amendment due process of law because (1) the confession admitted into evidence over his objection had been coerced from him by state authorities, and (2) even if his confession was voluntary it occurred while he was without counsel because of the previous denial of his request therefor. The Supreme Court of California affirmed the conviction. 47 Cal.2d 348, 303 P.2d 753. Certiorari was granted because of the serious due process implications that attend state denial of a request to employ an attorney. 1957, 354 U.S. 908, 77 S.Ct. 1300, 1 L.Ed.2d 1426.1 We conclude, however, that no violation of constitutional right has occurred.

The record here clearly reveals that prior to petitioner's confession he asked for and was denied opportunity to call his lawyer. We first consider that denial in connection with petitioner's contention that his subsequent confession was involuntary in nature.

It is well established that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits use of coerced confessions in state prosecutions. E.g., Brown v. State of Mississippi, 1936, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461, 80 L.Ed. 682; Watts v. State of Indiana, 1949, 338 U.S. 49, 69 S.Ct. 1347, 93 L.Ed. 1801; Fikes v. State of Alabama, 1957, 352 U.S. 191, 77 S.Ct. 281, 1 L.Ed.2d 246. As in Thomas v. State of Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 78 S.Ct. 885, 2 L.Ed.2d 863, and Payne v. State of Arkansas, 356 U.S. 560, 78 S.Ct. 844, 2 L.Ed.2d 975, we consider the undisputed facts in the record to ascertain whether the confession resulted from police coercion or the exercise of petitioner's own free will.

The victim's son discovered her body the morning of July 5, 1955, stabbed and strangled to death in the bedroom of her Los Angeles home. She was last known to be alive about 1 a.m. the same day, when she talked with a friend by telephone.

Petitioner was arrested in his apartment at 1:30 that afternoon and subsequently was charged with the murder. He was then 31 years of age, a college graduate who had attended the first year of law school. While going to law school he had been a house boy in the home of the victim. That position led to an illicit relationship with her, which she had attempted several times to terminate in the month preceding her death. The week of her death, after telling petitioner they had been found out, she had requested, and he had agreed, that he would never see her again.

Despite this understanding, he returned to her house late in the afternoon of July 4. Finding no one at home, he did nearby for the ostensible purpose of discovering who was 'threatening' her. From his hiding place he watched the victim return home with an escort around midnight. Shortly thereafter he saw the escort leave and watched the victim talk on the telephone. He claims that he then left the vicinity to return to his apartment, never having entered the house that evening.

At the time of his arrest, petitioner was questioned about scratches that were evident on his neck and hands. He attributed the former to shaving and the latter to a traffic mishap on his way to the beach on July 4. However he refused to reveal where the accident occurred. After his apartment was searched, petitioner was taken to the Los Angeles Police Station, where he was photographed and asked to take a lie detector test. He refused to submit to the test, and indicated that he wanted to call an attorney. At no time, however, does it appear that petitioner was offered the use of a telephone. Aside from sporadic questioning at his apartment, petitioner was interrogated for the first time from 8:30—9:30 p.m., the questioning being conducted by four officers and centering around his refusal of the lie detector test. During this time he asked for an opportunity to get a lawyer, naming a specific attorney whom he thought might represent him, but was told that 'after (the) investigation was concluded he could call an attorney.'

At 9:30 p.m. petitioner was transferred to the West Los Angeles Police Station, where five officers questioned him from 11 p.m. until shortly after midnight. He then was formally 'booked,' and given a physical examination by a police physician. The third and last questioning period was conducted by the same five men from approximately 1—2 a.m. July 6. For the next hour petitioner wrote and signed a detailed confession of the murder. Afterward, he was taken to the victim's home to re-enact the crime. At 5 a.m. he was put in jail and permitted to sleep.

That afternoon, a full day after his arrest, he was taken to the office of the Los Angeles County District Attorney to orally repeat the written confession. Petitioner balked at doing so and again asked that his attorney be called. Thereupon the District Attorney placed the call for him and listened to the conversation while petitioner talked on an extension phone with the attorney. Neither petitioner nor his attorney was aware that a tape recording was being made of everything that transpired in the office. The District Attorney interrupted at one point to deny that petitioner was forced to answer police questions and later to advise that the most convenient time for the attorney to see petitioner would be at 7 p.m. back at the West Los Angeles Police Station. After the phone call, petitioner was returned to jail to meet his attorney that evening. From that time forward, through both arraignment and trial, he was represented by his own counsel.

In the 14 hours between his arrest and confession, petitioner was given coffee and allowed to smoke whenever he liked. He also was given milk and a sandwich a few hours after his arrest. Before being transferred to the West Los Angeles Police Station he was advised by a police lieutenant, 'You don't have to say anything that you don't want to,' and he in fact refused to answer many questions both before and after the transfer. At such times he simply stated he 'would rather not answer, or rather not make a statement about that.'

The bare fact of police 'detention and police examination in private of one in official state custody' does not render involuntary a confession by the one so detained. Brown v. Allen, 1953, 344 U.S. 443, 476, 73 S.Ct. 397, 417, 97 L.Ed. 469. Neither does an admonition by the police to tell the truth, Spraf v. United States, 1895, 156 U.S. 51, 55—56, 15 S.Ct. 273, 275, 39 L.Ed. 343, nor the failure of state authorities to comply with local statutes requiring that an accused promptly be brought before a magistrate.2 Fikes v. State of Alabama, 1957, 352 U.S. 191, 77 S.Ct. 281, 1 L.Ed.2d 246.

Petitioner's claim of coercion, then, depends almost entirely on denial of his request to contact counsel.3 This Court has not previously had occasion to determine the character of a confession obtained after such a denial. But we have held that confessions made by indigent defendants prior to state appointment of counsel are not thereby rendered involuntary, even in prosecutions where conviction without counsel would violate due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Borwn v. Allen, 1953, 344 U.S. 443, 474—476, 73 S.Ct. 397, 416—417, 97 L.Ed. 469; Stroble v. State of California, 1952, 343 U.S. 181, 196—198, 72 S.Ct. 599, 606—607; Gallegos v. State of Nebraska, 1951, 342 U.S. 55, 64—68, 72 S.Ct. 141, 147—149, 96 L.Ed. 86. To be sure, coercion seems more likely to result from state denial of a specific request for opportunity to engage counsel than it does from state failure to appoint counsel immediately upon arrest. That greater possibility, however, is not decisive. It is negated here by petitioner's age, intelligence, and education. While in law school he had studied criminal law; indeed, when asked to take the lie detector test, he informed the operator that the results of such a test would not be admissible at trial absent a stipulation by the parties. Supplementing that background is the police statement to petitioner well before his confession that he did not have to answer questions. Moreover, the manner of his refusals to answer indicates full awareness of the right to be silent. On this record we are unable to say that petitioner's confession was anything other than voluntary.

We turn now to the contention that even if the confession be voluntary, its use violates due process because it was obtained after denial of petitioner's request to contact his attorney. Petitioner reaches this position by reasoning first that he has been denied a due process right to representation and advice from his attorney,4 and secondly that the use of any confession obtained from him during the time of such a denial would itself be barred by the Due Process Clause, even though freely made. We think petitioner fails to sustain the first point, and therefore we do not reach the second.

The right of an accused to counsel for his defense, though not firmly fixed in our common-law heritage, is of significant importance to the preservation of liberty in this country. See 1 Cooley's Constitutional Limitations (8th ed. 1927) 696—700; 2 Story on the Constitution (4th ed. 1893) § 1794. That right, secured in state prosecutions by the Fourteenth Amendment guaranty of due process, includes not only the right to have an attorney appointed by the State in certain cases, but also the right of an accused to 'a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice.' Powell v. State of Alabama, 1932, 287 U.S. 45, 53, 53 S.Ct. 55, 58, 77 L.Ed. 158; Chandler v. Fretag, 1954, 348 U.S. 3, 75 S.Ct. 1,...

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