Estelle v. Williams

Citation425 U.S. 501,96 S.Ct. 1691,48 L.Ed.2d 126
Decision Date03 May 1976
Docket NumberNo. 74-676,74-676
PartiesW. J. ESTELLE, Jr., Director, Texas Department of Corrections, Petitioner, v. Harry Lee WILLIAMS
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Respondent, who was charged with a criminal offense and held in custody awaiting trial, asked a jail officer on the morning of trial for his civilian clothes to wear at trial; no action was taken. During Voir dire his counsel expressly referred to respondent's jail attire. At no time before or during the ensuing jury trial was the issue raised to the trial judge concerning the jail attire. Respondent, whose conviction was upheld on appeal, sought federal habeas corpus. The District Court denied relief but the Court of Appeals reversed. Though there was evidence that in the county where the trial occurred the majority of nonbailed defendants were tried in jail clothes, there was no evidence that such a practice was followed if timely objection was made to the trial judge; and the practice of the particular trial judge was to permit any accused who so desired to be tried in civilian garb. Held: Although the State cannot, consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment, compel an accused to stand trial before a jury while dressed in identifiable prison clothes, the failure to make an objection to the court as to being tried in such clothes negates the presence of the compulsion necessary to establish a constitutional violation. Nothing in the record here warrants a conclusion that respondent was compelled to stand trial in jail garb or that there was sufficient reason to excuse the failure to raise the issue before trial. Pp. 503-511.

5 Cir., 500 F.2d 206, reversed and remanded.

Dunklin Sullivan, Austin, Tex., for petitioner.

Ben Aderholt, Corpus Christi, Tex., for respondent.

Mr. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to determine whether an accused who is compelled to wear identifiable prison clothing at his trial by a jury is denied due process or equal protection of the laws.

In November 1970, respondent Williams was convicted in state court in Harris County, Tex., for assault with intent to commit murder with malice. The crime occurred during an altercation between respondent and his former landlord on the latter's property. The evidence showed that respondent returned to the apartment complex where he had formerly resided to visit a female tenant. While there, respondent and his former landlord became involved in a quarrel. Heated words were exchanged, and a fight ensued. Respondent struck the landlord with a knife in the neck, chest, and abdomen, severely wounding him.

Unable to post bond, respondent was held in custody while awaiting trial. When he learned that he was to go on trial, respondent asked an officer at the jail for his civilian clothes. This request was denied. As a result, respondent appeared at trial in clothes that were distinctly marked as prison issue. Neither respondent nor his counsel raised an objection to the prison attire at any time.

A jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of assault with intent to murder with malice. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction. Williams v. State, 477 S.W.2d 24 (1972). Williams then sought release in the United States District Court on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Although holding that requiring a defendant to stand trial in prison garb was inherently unfair, the District Court denied relief on the ground that the error was harmless. Williams v. Beto, 364 F.Supp. 335 (S.D.Tex.1973).

The Court of Appeals reversed on the basis of its own prior holding in Hernandez v. Beto, 443 F.2d 634 (CA5), cert. denied, 404 U.S. 897, 92 S.Ct. 201, 30 L.Ed.2d 174 (1971). 500 F.2d 206. The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the District Court solely on the issue of harmless error.


The right to a fair trial is a fundamental liberty secured by the Fourteenth Amendment. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 172, 95 S.Ct. 896, 904, 43 L.Ed.2d 103, 113 (1975). The presumption of innocence, although not articulated in the Constitution, is a basic component of a fair trial under our system of criminal justice. Long ago this Court stated:

"The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law." Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453, 15 S.Ct. 394, 403, 39 L.Ed. 481, 491 (1895).

To implement the presumption, courts must be alert to factors that may undermine the fairness of the fact-finding process. In the administration of criminal justice, courts must carefully guard against dilution of the principle that guilt is to be established by probative evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 1072, 25 L.Ed.2d 368, 375 (1970).

The actual impact of a particular practice on the judgment of jurors cannot always be fully determined. But this Court has left no doubt that the probability of deleterious effects on fundamental rights calls for close judicial scrutiny. Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532, 85 S.Ct. 1628, 14 L.Ed.2d 543 (1965); In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942 (1955). Courts must do the best they can to evaluate the likely effects of a particular procedure, based on reason, principle, and common human experience.

The potential effects of presenting an accused before the jury in prison attire need not, however, be measured in the abstract. Courts have, with few exceptions,1 determined that an accused should not be compelled to go to trial in prison or jail clothing because of the possible impairment of the presumption so basic to the adversary system. Gaito v. Brierley, 485 F.2d 86 (CA3 1973); Hernandez v. Beto, Supra; Brooks v. Texas, 381 F.2d 619 (CA5 1967); Commonwealth v. Keeler, 216 Pa.Super. 193, 264 A.2d 407 (1970); Miller v. State, 249 Ark. 3, 457 S.W.2d 848 (1970); People v. Shaw, 381 Mich. 467, 164 N.W.2d 7 (1969); People v. Zapata, 220 Cal.App.2d 903, 34 Cal.Rptr. 171 (1963), cert. denied, 377 U.S. 406, 84 S.Ct. 1633, 12 L.Ed.2d 495 (1964); Eaddy v. People, 115 Colo. 488, 174 P.2d 717 (1946). The American Bar Association's Standards for Criminal Justice also disapprove the practice. ABA Project on Standards for Criminal Justice, Trial by Jury, § 4.1(b), p. 91 (App.Draft 1968). This is a recognition that the constant reminder of the accused's condition implicit in such distinctive, identi- fiable attire may affect a juror's judgment. The defendant's clothing is so likely to be a continuing influence throughout the trial that, not unlike placing a jury in the custody of deputy sheriffs who were also witnesses for the prosecution, an unacceptable risk is presented of impermissible factors coming into play. Turner v. Louisia, 379 U.S. 466, 473, 85 S.Ct. 546, 550, 13 L.Ed.2d 424, 429 (1965).

That such factors cannot always be avoided is manifest in Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 90 S.Ct. 1057, 25 L.Ed.2d 353 (1970), where we expressly recognized that "the sight of shackles and gags might have a significant effect on the jury's feelings about the defendant . . . ," Id., at 344, 90 S.Ct. at 1061, 25 L.Ed.2d at 359, yet the Court upheld the practice when necessary to control a contumacious defendant. For that reason, the Court authorized removal of a disruptive defendant from the courtroom or, alternatively, binding and gagging of the accused until he agrees to conduct himself properly in the courtroom.

Unlike physical restraints, permitted under Allen, supra, compelling an accused to wear jail clothing furthers no essential state policy. That it may be more convenient for jail administrators, a factor quite unlike the substantial need to impose physical restraints upon contumacious defendants, 2 provides no justification for the practice. Indeed, the State of Texas asserts no interest whatever in maintaining this procedure.

Similarly troubling is the fact that compelling the accused to stand trial in jail garb operates usually against only those who cannot post bail prior to trial. Persons who can secure release are not subjected to this condition. To impose the condition on one category of defendants, over objection, would be repugnant to the concept of equal justice embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment. Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 76 S.Ct. 585, 100 L.Ed. 891 (1956).


The Fifth Circuit, in this as well as in prior decisions, has not purported to adopt a Per se Rule invalidating all convictions where a defendant had appeared in identifiable prison clothes. That court has held, for instance, that the harmless-error doctrine is applicable to this line of cases. 500 F.2d, at 210-212. See also Thomas v. Beto, 474 F.2d 981, cert. denied, 414 U.S. 871, 94 S.Ct. 95, 38 L.Ed.2d 89 (1973); Hernandez v. Beto, supra, 443 F.2d, at 637. Other courts are in accord. Bentley v. Crist, 469 F.2d 854, 856 (CA9 1972); Watt v. Page, 452 F.2d 1174, 1176-1177 (CA10), cert. denied, 405 U.S. 1070, 92 S.Ct. 1520, 31 L.Ed.2d 803 (1972). In this case, the Court of Appeals quoted the language of Mr. Justice Douglas, speaking for the Court in Harrington v. California, 395 U.S. 250, 89 S.Ct. 1726, 23 L.Ed.2d 284 (1969):

"We held in Chapman v. California That 'before a federal constitutional error can be held harmless, the court must be able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.' We said that . . . not all 'trial errors which violate the Constitution automatically call for reversal.' " Id., At 251-252, 89 S.Ct. at 1727, 23 L.Ed.2d, at 286 (citations omitted).

In Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967), the Court, speaking through Mr. Justice Black, held:

"We are urged by petitioners to hold that all federal constitutional errors, regardless...

To continue reading

Request your trial
2153 cases
  • Hyman v. Aiken, Civ. A. No. 84-1763-1J.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • March 31, 1985
    ...See, e.g., Flanagan v. United States, 465 U.S. 259, ___, 104 S.Ct. 1051, 1054, 79 L.Ed.2d 288 (1984); Estette v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 504, 96 S.Ct. 1691, 1693, 48 L.Ed.2d 126 (1976); Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794, 95 S.Ct. 2031, 44 L.Ed.2d 589 (1975); Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. ......
  • People v. Ramirez
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • January 28, 2021 a fair trial. ( Carey v. Musladin (2006) 549 U.S. 70, 76, 127 S.Ct. 649, 166 L.Ed.2d 482 ( Musladin ).) In Estelle v. Williams (1976) 425 U.S. 501, 502, 96 S.Ct. 1691, 48 L.Ed.2d 126, for instance, the high court considered the custom whereby "an accused ... is compelled to wear identifi......
  • Henretty v. Jones, Case No.: 3:14cv177/LAC/EMT
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Northern District of Florida
    • November 12, 2015
    ...right to an impartial jury and a fair trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments as recognized by the Supreme Court in Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501 (1976) (Ex. F at 2-6). Petitioner argued that the Sheriff's practice was inherently prejudicial to him, because it created an unaccep......
  • State v. Dunlap, Docket No. 32773/37270
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Idaho
    • August 27, 2013
    ...respondent in their eyes 'with an unmistakable mark of guilt.' " Id. at 571 (footnote omitted) (quoting Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 518 (1976) (Brennan, J., dissenting)). We conclude that the district court properly dismissed this claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.b) Prior d......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
11 books & journal articles
  • Trial defense of dui in California
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books California Drunk Driving Law - Volume 1-2 Volume 1
    • March 30, 2022
    ...The presumption of innocence “is a basic component of a fair trial under our system of criminal justice[,]” Estelle v. Williams (1976) 425 U.S. 501, 503, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires “a subjective state of near certitude of the guilt of the accused.” Jackson v. Virginia (197......
  • Table of Cases
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Illinois Objections
    • May 1, 2013
    ...Dist 2002), §8:140 Estate of Vail v. First of America Trust Co. , 309 Ill App 3d 435, 722 NE2d 248 (1999), §19:70 Estelle v. Williams , 425 US 501, 96 S Ct 1691 (1976), §20:30 Exline v. Exline , 277 Ill App 3d 10, 659 NE2d 407 (1995), §7:240 F Fakhoury v. Vapor Corp. , 218 Ill App 3d 20, 57......
  • Populism, free speech, and the rule of law: the "fully informed" jury movement and its implications.
    • United States
    • Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 88 No. 1, September 1997
    • September 22, 1997
    ...J. Simson, Jury Nullification in the American System: A Skeptical View, TEX. L. REV. 488, 518-20 (1976). (99) See Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 503 (1976). See also Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, 721 (1961) (stating that, among the safeguards for the preservation of "individual liberty a......
  • Discovering child pornography: the death of the presumption of innocence.
    • United States
    • Ave Maria Law Review Vol. 6 No. 2, March 2008
    • March 22, 2008
    ...of our criminal law."). (129.) Id. (130.) Cervantes v. Cates, 76 P.3d 449, 454 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2003). (131.) Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 503 (1976); see also Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963) ("Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted but when criminal trials are f......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT