Culombe v. Connecticut

Citation81 S.Ct. 1860,367 U.S. 568,6 L.Ed.2d 1037
Decision Date19 June 1961
Docket NumberNo. 161,161
PartiesArthur CULOMBE, Petitioner, v. CONNECTICUT
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. Alexander A. Goldfarb, Hartford, Conn., for petitioner.

Mr. John D. LaBelle, Manchester, Conn., for respondent.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER announced the judgment of the Court, and an opinion in which Mr. Justice STEWART joins.

Once again the Court is confronted with the painful duty of sitting in judgment on a State's conviction for murder, after a jury's verdict was found flawless by the State's highest court, in order to determine whether the defendant's confessions, decisive for the conviction, were admitted into evidence in accordance with the standards for admissibility demanded by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This recurring problem touching the administration of criminal justice by the States presents in an aggravated form in this case the anxious task of reconciling the responsibility of the police for ferreting out crime with the right of the criminal defendant, however guilty, to be tried according to constitutional requirements.

On December 15, 1956, the dead bodies of two men were found in Kurp's Gasoline Station in New Britain, Connecticut. Edward J. Kurpiewski, the proprietor, was found in the boiler room with a bullet in his head. Daniel J. Janowski, a customer, was found in the men's toilet room shot twice in the head. Parked at the pumps in front of the station was Janowski's car. In it was Janowski's daughter, physically unharmed. She was the only surviving eyewitness of what had happened at the station. She was eighteen months old.

The Krup's affair was one in a series of holdups and holdup killings that terrified the operators of gasoline stations, package stores and small shops throughout the environing Connecticut area. Newspapers and radio and television broadcasters reported each fresh depredation of the 'mad killers.' At Hartford, the State Police were at work investigating the crimes, apparently with little evidence to go on. At the scene of the killings of Kurpiewski and Janowski no physical clues were discovered.1 The bullet slugs removed from the brains of the two victims were split and damaged.

In the last week of February 1957, for reasons which do not appear in this record, suspicion in connection with at least two of the holdups under investigation, holdups of a country store in Coventry and of a package store in Rocky Hill, focused on two friends, Arthur Culombe and Joseph Taborsky. On the afternoon of February 23, the two were accosted by teams of officers and asked to come to State Police Headquarters. They were never again out of police custody. In the Headquarters' interrogation room and elsewhere, they were questioned about the Coventry and Rocky Hill holdups, Kurp's, and other matters. Within ten days Culombe had five times confessed orally to participation in the Kurp's Gasoline Station affair—once re-enacting the holdup for the police and had signed three typed statements incriminating himself and Taborsky in the Kurp's killings. Taborsky also confessed.

The two were indicted and tried jointly for murder in the first degree before a jury in the Superior Court at Hartford. Certain of their oral and written statements were permitted to go to the jury over their timely objections that these had been extracted from them by police methods which made the confessions inadmissible consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment. Both men were convicted of first-degree murder and their convictions affirmed by the Supreme Court of Errors. 147 Conn. 194, 158 A.2d 239. Only Culombe sought review by this Court. Because his petition for certiorari presented serious questions concerning the limitations imposed by the Federal Due Process Clause upon the investigative activities of state criminal law enforcement officials, we issued the writ. 363 U.S. 826, 80 S.Ct. 1604, 4 L.Ed.2d 1522.


The occasion which in December 1956 confronted the Connecticut State Police with two corpses and an infant as their sole informants to a crime of community-disturb- ing violence is not a rare one. Despite modern advances in the technology of crime detection, offenses frequently occur about which things cannot be made to speak. And where there cannot be found innocent human witnesses to such offenses, nothing remains if police investigation is not to be balked before it has fairly begun—but to seek out possibly guilty witnesses and ask them questions, witnesses, that is, who are suspected of knowing something about the offense precisely because they are suspected of implication in it.

The questions which these suspected witnesses are asked may serve to clear them. They may serve, directly or indirectly, to lead the police to other suspects than the persons questioned. Or they may become the means by which the persons questioned are themselves made to furnish proofs which will eventually send them to prison or death. In any event, whatever its outcome, such questioning is often indispensable to crime detection. Its compelling necessity has been judicially recognized as its sufficient justification, even in a society which, like ours, stands strongly and constitutionally committed to the principle that persons accused of crime cannot be made to convict themselves out of their own mouths.

But persons who are suspected of crime will not always be unreluctant to answer questions put by the police. Since under the procedures of Anglo-American criminal justice they cannot be constrained by legal process to give answers which incriminate them, the police have resorted to other means to unbend their reluctance, lest criminal investigation founder.2 Kindness, cajolery, entreaty deception, persistent cross-questioning, even physical brutality have been used to this end.3 In the United States, 'interrogation' has become a police technique,4 and detention for purposes of interrogation a common, al- though generally unlawful, practice.5 Crime detection officials, finding that if their suspects are kept under tight police control during questioning they are less i kely to be distracted, less likely to be recalcitrant and, of course, less likely to make off and escape entirely, not infrequently take such suspects into custody for 'investigation.'

This practice has its manifest evils and dangers. Persons subjected to it are torn from the reliances of their daily existence and held at h e mercy of those whose job it is—if such persons have committed crimes, as it is supposed they have—to prosecute them. They are deprived of freedom without a proper judicial tribunal having found them guilty, without a proper judicial tribunal having found even that there is probable cause to believe that they may be guilty.6 What actually happens to them behind the closed door of the interrogation room is difficult if not impossible to ascertain. Certainly, if through excess of zeal or aggressive impatience or flaring up of temper in the face of obstinate silence a prisoner is abused,7 he is faced with the task of overcoming, by his lone testimony, solemn official denials.8 The prisoner knows this—knows that no friendly or disinterested witness is present—and the knowledge may itself induce fear.9 But, in any case, the risk is great that the police will accomplish behind their closed door precisely what the demands of our legal order forbid: make a suspect the unwilling collaborator in establishing his guilt. This they may accomplish not only with ropes and a rubber hose, not only by relay questioning persistently, insistently subjugating a tired mind, but by subtler devices.

In the police station a prisoner is surrounded by known hostile forces. He is disoriented from the world he knows and in which he finds support.10 He is subject to coercing impingements, undermining even if not obvious pressures of every variety. In such an atmosphere, questioning that is long continued—even if it is only repeated at intervals, never protracted to the point of physical exhaustion—inevitably suggests that the questioner has a right to, and expects, an answer.11 This is so, certainly, when the prisoner has never been told that he need not answer and when, because his commitment to custody seems to be at the will of his questioners, he has every reason to believe that he will be held and interrogated until he speaks.12

However, a confession made by a person in custody is not always the result of an overborne will. The police may be midwife to a declaration naturally born of remorse, or relief, or desperation, or calculation. If that is so, if the 'suction process'13 has not been at the prisoner and drained his capacity for freedom of choice, does not the awful responsibility of the police for maintaining the peaceful order of society justify the means which they have employed? It will not do to forget, as Sir Patrick (now Lord Justice) Devlin has put it, that 'The least criticism of police methods of interrogation deserves to be most carefully weighed because the evidence which such interrogation produces is often decisive; the high degree of proof which the English law requires—proof beyond reasonable doubt—often could not be achieved by the prosecution without the assistance of the accused's own statement.'14 Yet even if one cannot adopt 'an undiscriminating hostility to mere interrogation * * * without unduly fettering the States in protecting society from the criminal,'15 there remain the questions: When applied to what practices, is a judgment of impermissibility drawn from the fundamental conceptions of Anglo-American accusatorial process 'undiscriminating'? What are the characteristics of the 'mere interrogation' which is allowable consistently with those conceptions?


The problem which must be faced in fair recognition of the States' basic security and of the States' observance of their own standards, apart from the sanctions of the Fourteenth Amendment, in...

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