Fikes v. State of Alabama

Decision Date14 January 1957
Docket NumberNo. 53,53
PartiesWilliam Earl FIKES, Petitioner, v. STATE OF ALABAMA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Defendant's conviction of burglary with intent to commit rape, with death sentence, was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Alabama, 263 Ala. 89, 81 So.2d 303, and defendant brought certiorari. The Supreme Court, Mr. Chief Justice Warren, held that under the circumstances, including failure to take defendant before a magistrate as required by Alabama statute, and his incarceration in isolation for a week of questioning, confessions thus obtained were not voluntary and their use was a denial of due process, notwithstanding absence of physical brutality and long continued interrogation.

Mr. Jack Greenberg, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Robert Straub, for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner is under sentence of death for the crime of burglary with intent to commit rape. He seeks reversal of the judgment through a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Alabama, which sustained the conviction. 263 Ala. 89, 81 So.2d 303. Petitioner raised three issues in support of his position that he had been denied due process of law. He alleged:

1. Admission into evidence of two confessions extracted from him under circumstances demonstrating that the statements were coerced or involuntary.

2. Denial by the trial judge of petitioner's request to testify about the manner in which the confessions were obtained without subjecting himself to unlimited cross-examination as to the facts of the crime charged.

3. Selection of the grand jury which indicted him by a method that systematically discriminated against members of his race.

We granted certiorari to determine whether the requirements of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment had been satisfied in these aspects of petitioner's conviction. 350 U.S. 993, 76 S.Ct. 549. The judgment must be reversed because of the admission of the confessions. Therefore, it is unnecessary at this time to decide or discuss the other two issues raised by petitioner.

The facts essential to the present decision are as follows:

During the early months of 1953, a number of housebreakings, some involving rape or attempted rape, were committed in the City of Selma, Alabama. The present trial concerned one of these crimes.1 On the night of April 24, 1953, an intruder broke into the apartment of the daughter of the city's mayor. She awoke to find a Negro man sitting on her with a knife at her throat. A struggle ensued which carried the woman and her assailant through the bedroom, hall, and living room, where she finally was able to seize the knife, at which point he fled. These rooms were all lighted. The victim testi- fied that the attacker 'had a towel draped over his head' throughout the incident; she did not identify petitioner as the attacker in her testimony at the trial. However, two other women testified to similar housebreakings (one of which resulted in rape), and they each identified petitioner as the burglar. This testimony was admitted at the present trial 'solely on the question of intent and identity of defendant and his motive on the occasion then on trial.' 263 Ala. at page 99, 81 So.2d at page 313. This, with the challenged confessions, was substantially all the evidence concerning the crime at the trial.

About midnight on May 16, 1953, petitioner was apprehended in an alley in a white neighborhood in Selma by private persons, who called the police. The officers jailed him 'on an open charge of investigation.' The next day, a Sunday, the questioning that led to the challenged confessions began. It is, of course, highly material to the question before this Court to ascertain petitioner's character and background. He is a Negro, 27 years old in 1953, who started school at age eight and left at 16 while still in the third grade. There was testimony by three psychiatrists at the trial, in connection with a pleaded defense of insanity, to the effect that petitioner is a schizophrenic and highly suggestible. His mother testified that he had always been 'thick-headed.' Petitioner worked in a gas station in his home town of Marion, some 30 miles from Selma. So far as appears, his only prior involvement with the law was a conviction for burglary of a store in November 1949; he was released on parole in January 1951.

The questioning of petitioner was conducted principally by Captain Baker of the Selma police. His testimony that he repeatedly advised petitioner 'that he was entitled to counsel and his various rights' must be viewed in the light of the facts concerning petitioner's mentality and experience just outlined.

The interrogation began on Sunday, May 17, with a two-hour session in the morning in Captain Baker's office. That afternoon, petitioner was questioned for two and a half or three hours, during part of which time he was driven around the city to some of the locations of the unsolved burglaries. During this ride, petitioner also talked to the sheriff of his home county, who had been called to Selma at petitioner's request, according to Captain Baker's testimony.

On Monday, petitioner talked with his employer. Captain Baker continued questioning for two hours in the morning. He testified that a warrant was served on petitioner in jail, but that petitioner did not request a preliminary hearing. In fact, he was not taken before any judicial officer prior to the confessions.2 That afternoon, petitioner was driven to Kilby State Prison, which is located in another county, about 55 miles from Selma and some 80 miles from petitioner's home in Marion. The testimony of the responsible officers was that this removal was done for petitioner's protection, although no specific threat against him had been made.

At Kilby Prison, petitioner was kept in the 'segregation unit,' out of contact with other prisoners. He saw only the jailers and Selma officers who drove over to question him. Petitioner was interrogated in an office in the prison. On Monday, there was questioning there for 'several hours' in the afternoon and 'a little while' after supper. The next interrogation was on Wednesday. It lasted 'several hours' in the afternoon and into the evening. The following day petitioner was questioned for two hours in the afternoon and about an hour and a half in the evening. That day his father came to the prison to see him, but was refused admittance.

On Thursday evening, the first confession occurred. It was introduced at the trial through a tape recording. The confession consists of an interrogation by Captain Baker. Petitioner responded chiefly in yes-or-no answers to his questions, some of which were quite leading or suggestive.

Petitioner was questioned again for three hours on Saturday, May 23. That day, a lawyer who came to the prison to see him was turned away. On Sunday, petitioner's father was allowed to visit his son. This was the only contact petitioner had during the entire period in question with family or friend, or for that matter with anyone he knew, except the talks at the beginning of the week with the sheriff of his own county, in the presence of Selma officers, and with his employer.

In the second week of his incarceration, on Tuesday afternoon, petitioner was questioned for about two and a half hours. At this time, the second confession was made. Like the other, it consists of responses to questions. The second confession was taken down by a prison stenographer and signed by petitioner after it was read to him.

This outline of the facts surrounding the taking of the confessions comes entirely from the testimony of the State witnesses, who under the circumstances were the only ones who could testify at the trial on this subject other than the prisoner himself. He did not testify, because of the trial judge's ruling that he would be subject to unlimited cross-examination concerning the offense charged against him.3 Standing alone, the State's evidence establishes that the confessions in the present case were not voluntary within the meaning of the decisions of this Court.

Here the prisoner was an uneducated Negro, certainly of low mentality, if not mentally ill. He was first arrested by civilians, lodged in jail, and then removed to a state prison far from his home. We do not criticize the decision to remove the prisoner before any possibility of violence might mature, but petitioner's location and the conditions of his incarceration are facts to be weighed in connection with the issue before us. For a period of a week, he was kept in isolation, except for sessions of questioning. He saw no friend or relative. Both his father and a lawyer were barred in attempts to see him. The protections to be afforded to a prisoner upon preliminary hearing were denied him, contrary to the law of Alabama.4 He was questioned for several hours at a time over the course of five days preceding the first confession, and again interrogated at length before the written confession was secured.

There is no evidence of physical brutality, and particular elements that were present in other cases in which this Court ruled that a confession was coerced do not appear here. On the other hand, some of the elements in this case were not present in all of the prior cases. The objective facts in the present case are very much like those that were before the Court in Turner v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 338 U.S. 62, 69 S.Ct. 1352, 93 L.Ed. 1810, while the present petitioner was a weaker and more susceptible subject than the record in that case reveals Turner to have been. And cf. Johnson v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 340 U.S. 881, 71 S.Ct. 191, 95 L.Ed. 640. The totality of the circumstances that preceded the confessions in this case goes beyond the allowable limits. The use of the confessions secured in this setting was a denial of due process.

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