Griffin v. United States, No. 417

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtFRANKFURTER
Citation336 U.S. 704,93 L.Ed. 993,69 S.Ct. 814
PartiesGRIFFIN v. UNITED STATES
Docket NumberNo. 417
Decision Date25 April 1949

336 U.S. 704
69 S.Ct. 814
93 L.Ed. 993
GRIFFIN

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 417.
Argued Dec. 15, 16, 1948.
Decided April 25, 1949.
Rehearing Denied May 31, 1949.

See 337 U.S. 921, 69 S.Ct. 1152.

Page 705

Mr. Francis J. Kelly, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Charles B. Murray, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case was brought here under § 1254(1) of Title 28 of the United States Code, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1254(1) to review the dismissal by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia of an appeal from the denial of a motion for a new trial on the ground of evidence discovered after the petitioner had been convicted of murder in the first degree. 335 U.S. 866, 69 S.Ct. 139. The decisive issue is the admissibility of that evidence. The question arises not through its exclusion at trial but on a motion for a new trial in order to be able to introduce it as newly discovered.

The petitioner, Baxter Griffin, was convicted of the murder of Lee Hunter. The killing was the outcome of a quarrel. Admitting that he shot Hunter, Griffin claimed that he did so in self-defense. His story was that the deceased and he were playing a card game called blackjack, that Hunter demanded a larger share of the pot than was his right, and that upon his refusal to pay,

Page 706

Hunter 'jumped up and started around the table, with his hand in his pocket, and told me he would kick my teeth out of my head.' On cross-examination Griffin added that Hunter threatened to kill him. Accordingly, so his story continued, Griffin shot Hunter as Hunter advanced toward him with his hand in his pocket. This version of the occurrence was contradicted by five Government witnesses. Each testified that petitioner started the argument, and that it had nothing to do with the card game which, according to their account, was over before the fracas began. According to them, this is what happened: Griffin made some remark to Hunter about taking Hunter's wife and baby around to Griffin's house; Hunter replied that he would kick petitioner's teeth down his throat; Griffin thereupon left the house and returned within ten minutes with a gun, and on his return shot Hunter who had made no move from the spot where he was standing. Griffin admitted that he saw nothing in Hunter's hand at the time he shot Hunter. On the evidence, as summarized, the jury on March 28, 1947, found Griffin guilty of murder in the first degree; on April 18, 1947, he was sentenced to death; on December 8, 1947, the conviction was affirmed, 83 U.S.App.D.C. 20, 164 F.2d 903; on March 15, 1948, this Court denied certiorari, 333 U.S. 857, 68 S.Ct. 727, 92 L.Ed. 1137.

On May 7, 1948, a little more than a month before the day set for execution, Griffin began the present proceedings for a new trial. It was based on affidavits of his then counsel who averred that it had recently come to his knowledge that the attendant at the morgue had found an opened penknife in the trousers' pocket of the deceased and that the prosecutor knew of this at the time of the trial but failed to introduce this circumstance in evidence or make it available to the defense. The affidavits further alleged that there was evidence that playing cards were on the floor immediately after the shooting, a fact which

Page 707

would, had it been known to the defense, have tended to corroborate Griffin's statement that the card game was in progress at the time of the shooting. An extended hearing was had on the motion for a new trial. The allegation regarding scattered playing cards on the floor at the time of the fatal shooting was adequately met, and this ground for a new trial need not detain us.

As to Griffin's discovery, after his conviction was affirmed, of the undisclosed knife in the pocket of the deceased, the Government conceded that it knew of this circumstance at the time of the trial and despite that knowledge neither introduced the fact in evidence nor felt any duty to make it known to the defense. The Government justified this on the ground that in its view the circumstance of the knife was inadmissible, since knowledge of its presence in the pocket of the deceased had not been communicated to Griffin either by sight or otherwise. The District Judge took this view of the law and denied the motion for a new trial. In an unreported opinion, he stated, 'The question whether a person is justified in attacking an assailant in self-defense must be determined by the facts which were presented to the person who pleads self-defense. He (Griffin) did not know, it appears, that the deceased had an open knife in his pocket, and therefore its existence is irrelevant.' An appeal having been taken, the Government moved to dismiss the appeal on the ground that 'the issues raised by appellant's motion for a new trial were fully explored in the court below and that the disposition made of them by the trial court was manifestly correct.' The appeal was dismissed by a unanimous Court of Appeals, presided over by a judge than whom no one is more alert in protecting the rights of the accused.

Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals evidently thought that the ground for dismissing the appeal was too clear to require explication. It dismissed the appeal without

Page 708

an expression of views regarding the admissibility of the evidence on which the claim for a new trial rests. It may well have done so on the ground that in the District evidence of this nature is inadmissible. That this was the reason for the dismissal is the view of some members of this Court. The opinion of the Court of Appeals on a later appeal from the denial of a petition for habeas corpus by Griffin lends support to such an interpretation of the summary dismissal of the appeal now under review. See Griffin v. Clemmer, 83 U.S.App.D.C. 351, 169 F.2d 961.1 But solicitude for life bars reliance on such an inference, especially since the issue on habeas corpus is quite different from that on appeal from a denial of a motion for a new trial. It seems to us more appropriate for the Court of Appeals to address itself directly to the issue of admissibility. This is so in order to rule out the inference that the Court of Appeals may, in apply ng United States v. Johnson, 327 U.S. 106, 66 S.Ct. 464, 90 L.Ed. 562, have deemed the denial of a motion for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence solely a matter for the trial court's discretion.

Were the Court of Appeals to declare that the controverted evidence was admissible according to the law

Page 709

prevailing in the District, it would have to consider further whether it would not be too dogmatic, on the basis of mere speculation, for any court to conclude that the jury would not have attached significance to the evidence favorable to the defendant had the evidence been before it. If the Court of Appeals had decided that the disputed evidence was not admissible in the District of Columbia on a claim of self-defense and on that ground had sustained the denial of the motion for a new trial, there would have been an end of the matter. It is not to be assumed that this Court would have granted a petition for certiorari to review the ruling since the determination would have been a matter of local law as are the rules of evidence prevailing in the State Courts.

We are told, however, that a ruling which did not permit the introduction of 'uncommunicated threats' would constitute 'egregious error' to be corrected by this Court. Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 1324, 90 L.Ed. 1382, 166 A.L.R. 1176. Wigmore is vouched as authority that uncommunicated threats are admissible in 'virtually all Courts.' But Wigmore immediately follows the words quoted with a series of qualifications and limitations which prove that there are few questions of admissibility in trials for murder that have occasioned a greater contrariety of views. See 1 Wigmore, Evidence § 111 (3d Ed., 1940).2 By way of

Page 710

example, most jurisdictions hold that evidence of uncommunicated threats is inadmissible where there is clear proof that the defendant took the initiative, or where there is no evidence that the deceased was the aggressor other than the proffered uncommunicated threats. Were this the rule in the District, the dismissal of the appeal may well have been rested on it, since there was weighty

Page 711

proof that the petitioner was the aggressor. Indeed, for all we know the Court of Appeals might have had in mind a rule concerning uncommunicated threats that would admit them and yet guard against the danger of fabrication by placing upon the trial judge the responsibility of excluding such alleged threats against the defendant in the absence of proof satisfactory to him of some hostile manifestation by the deceased relevant to the killing. At least one State has some such rule. State v. Carter, 197

Page 712

La. 155, 158, 1 So.2d 62. This is not to reject as unreasonable a rule, followed by some courts, that would let the evidence in, even where all other witnesses oppose a defendant's version of the killing.

One thing is clear. There is no 'federal rule' on this subject. The decision in Wiggins v. People, etc., in Utah, 93 U.S. 465, 23 L.Ed. 941, does not purport to lay down a general rule, nor does it even formulate the evidentiary problem now in controversy. In that case, in light of the fact that there was no other identification of the aggressor, proof was offered that the deceased had exhibited a pistol a few minutes before the shooting and had said, though out of the hearing of the accused, that 'he would kill defendant before he went to bed that night.' and this Court naturally held that this evidence should have been admitted. It did so because 'it would have tended strongly to show where that first shot came from, and how that pistol, with one chamber emptied, came to be found on the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
70 practice notes
  • Whalen v. United States, No. 78-5471
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 16, 1980
    ...local concern. See Pernell v. Southall Realty, 416 U.S. 363, 366, 94 S.Ct. 1723, 1725, 40 L.Ed.2d 198; see also Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 717-718, 69 S.Ct. 814, 820, 93 L.Ed. 993; Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 1324, 90 L.Ed. 1382. This practice has......
  • Giles v. State of Maryland, No. 27
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • February 20, 1967
    ...judge who presided at the post-conviction hearing. 5. This document is included in the record at page 274. 1. In Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 707—709, 69 S.Ct. 814, 815—816, 93 L.Ed. 993 (1949), this Court remanded a case for reconsideration of a ruling that certain evidence with......
  • Killough v. United States, No. 16398.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • October 4, 1962
    ...for the District, so long as the rules chosen do not offend statutory or constitutional limitations." Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 714, 69 S.Ct. 814, 819, 93 L.Ed. 993. Of course, as Mallory itself shows, we cannot abuse that power. But, precisely because, "save in exceptional si......
  • Bethea v. United Stated, No. 8460.
    • United States
    • September 27, 1976
    ...1723, 40 L.Ed.2d 198 (1974); Miller v. United States, 357 U.S. 301, 306, 78 S.Ct. 1190, 2 L.Ed.2d 1332 (1958); Griffin, v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 713-18, 69 S.Ct. 814, 93 L.Ed. 993 45. See, e. g., Heideman v. United States, 104 U.S.App.D.C. 128, 131, 259 F.2d 943, 946 (1958), cert. de......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
69 cases
  • Whalen v. United States, No. 78-5471
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 16, 1980
    ...local concern. See Pernell v. Southall Realty, 416 U.S. 363, 366, 94 S.Ct. 1723, 1725, 40 L.Ed.2d 198; see also Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 717-718, 69 S.Ct. 814, 820, 93 L.Ed. 993; Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 1324, 90 L.Ed. 1382. This practice has......
  • Giles v. State of Maryland, No. 27
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • February 20, 1967
    ...judge who presided at the post-conviction hearing. 5. This document is included in the record at page 274. 1. In Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 707—709, 69 S.Ct. 814, 815—816, 93 L.Ed. 993 (1949), this Court remanded a case for reconsideration of a ruling that certain evidence with......
  • Killough v. United States, No. 16398.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • October 4, 1962
    ...for the District, so long as the rules chosen do not offend statutory or constitutional limitations." Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 714, 69 S.Ct. 814, 819, 93 L.Ed. 993. Of course, as Mallory itself shows, we cannot abuse that power. But, precisely because, "save in exceptional si......
  • Bethea v. United Stated, No. 8460.
    • United States
    • September 27, 1976
    ...1723, 40 L.Ed.2d 198 (1974); Miller v. United States, 357 U.S. 301, 306, 78 S.Ct. 1190, 2 L.Ed.2d 1332 (1958); Griffin, v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 713-18, 69 S.Ct. 814, 93 L.Ed. 993 45. See, e. g., Heideman v. United States, 104 U.S.App.D.C. 128, 131, 259 F.2d 943, 946 (1958), cert. de......
  • 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