Henry v. State of Mississippi, 6

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBRENNAN
Citation379 U.S. 443,13 L.Ed.2d 408,85 S.Ct. 564
PartiesAaron HENRY, Petitioner, v. STATE OF MISSISSIPPI
Docket NumberNo. 6,6
Decision Date18 January 1965

See 380 U.S. 926, 85 S.Ct. 878.

Barbara A. Morris, New York City, for petitioner.

G. Garland Lyell, Jr., Jackson, Miss., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted of disturbing the peace, by indecent proposals to and offensive contact with an 18-year-old hitchhiker to whom he is said to have given a ride in his car. The trial judge charged the jury that 'you cannot find the defendant guilty on the unsupported and uncorroborated testimony of the complainant alone.' The petitioner's federal claim derives from the admission of a police officer's testimony, introduced to corroborate the hitchhiker's testimony. The Mississippi Supreme Court held that the officer's testimony was improperly admitted as the fruit of 'an unlawful search and was in violation of § 23, Miss. Constitution 1890.' 154 So.2d 289, 294. 1 The tainted evidence tended to substantiate the hitchhiker's testimony by showing its accuracy in a detail which could have been seen only by one inside the car. In particular, it showed that the right-hand ash tray of the car in which the incident took place was full of Dentyne chewing gun wrappers, and that the cigarette lighter did not function. The police officer testified that after petitioner's arrest he had returned to the petitioner's home and obtained the permission of peti- tioner's wife to look in petitioner's car. The wife provided the officer with the keys, with which the officer opened the car. He testified that he tried the lighter and it would not work, and also that the ashtray 'was filled with red dentyne chewing gum wrappers.'

The Mississippi Supreme Court first filed an opinion which reversed petitioner's conviction and remanded for a new trial. The court held that the wife's consent to the search of the car did not waive petitioner's constitutional rights, and noted that the '(t)estimony of the State's witness * * * is, in effect, uncorroborated without the evidence disclosed by the inspection of defendant's automobile.' 154 So.2d, at 296 (advance sheet).2 Acting in the belief that petitioner had been represented by nonresident counsel unfamiliar with local procedure, the court reversed despite petitioner's failure to comply with the Mississippi requirement that an objection to illegal evidence be made at the time it is introduced. The court noted that petitioner had moved for a directed verdict at the close of the State's case, assigning as one ground the use of illegally obtained evidence; it did not mention petitioner's renewal of his motion at the close of all evidence.

After the first opinion was handed down, the State filed a Suggestion of Error, pointing out that petitioner was in fact represented at his trial by competent local counsel, as well as by out-of-state lawyers. Thereupon the Mississippi Supreme Court withdrew its first opinion and filed a new opinion in support of a judgment affirming petitioner's conviction. The new opinion is identical with the first save for the result, the statement that petitioner had local counsel, and the discussion of the effect of failure for whatever reason to make timely objection to the evidence. 'In such circumstances, even if honest mistakes of counsel in respect to policy or strategy or otherwise occur, they are binding upon the client as a part of the hazards of courtroom battle.' 154 So.2d, at 296 (bound volume). Moreover, the court reasoned, petitioner's cross-examination of the State's witness before the initial motion for directed verdict, and introduction of other evidence of the car's interior appearance afterward, 'cured' the original error and estopped petitioner from complaining of the tainted evidence. We granted certiorari, 376 U.S. 904, 84 S.Ct. 657, 11 L.Ed.2d 604. We vacate the judgment of conviction and remand for a hearing on the question whether the petitioner is to be deemed to have knowingly waived decision of his federal claim when timely objection was not made to the admission of the illegally seized evidence.

It is, of course, a familiar principle that this Court will decline to review state court judgments which rest on independent and adequate state grounds, even where these judgments also decide federal questions. The principle applies not only in cases involving state substantive grounds, Murdock v. City of Memphis, 20 Wall. 590, 22 L.Ed. 429, but also in cases involving state procedural grounds. Compare Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 125 126, 65 S.Ct. 459, 462—463, 89 L.Ed. 789 with Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22, 44 S.Ct. 13, 68 L.Ed. 143. But it is important to distinguish between state substantive grounds and state procedural grounds. Where the ground involved is substantive, the determination of the federal question cannot affect the disposition if the state court decision on the state law question is allowed to stand. Under the view taken in Murdock of the statutes conferring appellate jurisdiction on this Court, we have no power to revise judgments on questions of state law. Thus, the adequate nonfederal ground doctrine is necessary to avoid advisory opinions.

These justifications have no application where the state ground is purely procedural. A procedural default which is held to bar challenge to a conviction in state courts, even on federal constitutional grounds, prevents implementation of the federal right. Accordingly, we have consistently held that the question of when and how defaults in compliance with state procedural rules can preclude our consideration of a federal question is itself a federal question. Cf. Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 450, 58 S.Ct. 666, 668, 82 L.Ed. 949. As Mr. Justice Holmes said:

'When as here there is a plain assertion of federal rights in the lower court, local rules as to how far it shall be reviewed on appeal do not necessarily prevail. * * * Whether the right was denied or not given due recognition by the (state court) * * * is a question as to which the plaintiffs are entitled to invoke our judgment.' Love v. Griffith, 266 U.S. 32, 33—34, 45 S.Ct. 12, 12, 69 L.Ed. 157.

Only last Term, we reaffirmed this principle, holding that a state appellate court's refusal, on the ground of mootness, to consider a federal claim, did not preclude our independent determination of the question of mootness; that is itself a question of federal law which this Court must ultimately decide. Liner v. Jafco, Inc., 375 U.S. 301, 84 S.Ct. 391, 11 L.Ed.2d 347. These cases settle the proposition that a litigant's procedural defaults in state proceedings do not prevent vindication of his federal rights unless the State's insistence on compliance with its procedural rule serves a legitimate state interest. In every case we must inquire whether the enforcement of a procedural forfeiture serves such a state interest. If it does not, the state procedural rule ought not be permitted to bar vindication of important federal rights.3

The Mississippi rule requiring contemporaneous objection to the introduction of illegal evidence clearly does serve a legitimate state interest. By immediately apprising the trial judge of the objection, counsel gives the court the opportunity to conduct the trial without using the tainted evidence. If the objection is well taken the fruits of the illegal search may be excluded from jury consideration, and a reversal and new trial avoided. But on the record before us it appears that this purpose of the contemporaneous-objection rule may have been substantially served by petitioner's motion at the close of the State's evidence asking for a directed verdict because of the erroneous admission of the officer's testimony. For at this stage the trial judge could have called for elaboration of the search and seizure argument and, if persuaded, could have stricken the tainted testimony or have taken other appropriate corrective action. For example, if there was sufficient competent evidence without this testimony to go to the jury, the motion for a directed verdict might have been denied, and the case submitted to the jury with a properly worded appropriate cautionary instruction.4 In these circumstances, the delay until the close of the State's case in presenting the objection cannot be said to have frustrated the State's interest in avoiding delay and waste of time in the disposition of the case. If this is so, and enforcement of the rule here would serve no substantial state interest, then settled principles would preclude treating the state ground as adequate; giving effect to the contemporaneous-objection rule for its own sake 'would be to force resort to an arid ritual of meaningless form.' Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313, 320, 78 S.Ct. 277, 281, 2 L.Ed.2d 302; see also Wright v. Georgia, 373 U.S. 284, 289—291, 83 S.Ct. 1240, 10 L.Ed.2d 349.5

We have no reason, however, to decide that question now or to express any view on the merits of petitioner's substantial constitutional claim.6 For even assuming that the making of the objection on the motion for a directed verdict satisfied the state interest served by the contemporaneous-objection rule, the record suggests a possibility that petitioner's counsel deliberately bypassed the opportunity to make timely objection in the state court, and thus that the petitioner should be deemed to have forfeited his state court remedies. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court characterized the failure to object as an 'honest mistake,'154 So.2d at 296 (bound volume), the State, in the brief in support of its Suggestion of Error in the Supreme Court of Mississippi asserted its willingness to agree that its Suggestion of Error 'should not be sustained if either of the three counsel (for petitioner) participating in this trial would respond hereto with an affidavit that he did not...

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