Hysler v. State of Florida

Decision Date02 March 1942
Docket NumberNo. 64,64
Citation315 U.S. 411,62 S.Ct. 688,86 L.Ed. 932
PartiesHYSLER v. STATE OF FLORIDA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Carlton C. Arnow, of Jacksonville, Fla., for petitioner.

Mr. Joseph E. Gillen, of Tampa, Fla., for respondent.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

After the Supreme Court of Florida had affirmed his conviction for murder, the petitioner applied to that court for leave to ask the trial court to review the judgment of conviction. The basis of his application was the claim that the testimony of two witnesses implicating him was perjured, and that they had testified falsely against him because they were 'coerced, intimidated, beaten, threatened with violence and otherwise abused and mistreated' by the police and were 'promised immunity from the electric chair' by the district attorney. After twice considering the matter, the Supreme Court of Florida denied the application. 146 Fla. 593, 1 So.2d 628. We brought the case here, 313 U.S. 557, 61 S.Ct. 1113, 85 L.Ed. 1518, in view of our solicitude, especially where life is at stake, for those liberties which are guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The guides for decision are clear. If a state, whether by the active conduct or the connivance of the prosecution, obtains a conviction through the use of perjured testimony, it violates civilized standards for the trial of guilt or innocence and thereby deprives an accused of liberty without due process of law. Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 55 S.Ct. 340, 79 L.Ed. 791, 98 A.L.R. 406. Equally offensive to the Constitutional guarantees of liberty are confessions wrung from an accused by overpowering his will, whether through physical violence or the more subtle forms of coercion commonly known as 'the third degree'. Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461, 80 L.Ed. 682; Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 60 S.Ct. 472, 84 L.Ed. 716; Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 62 S.Ct. 280, 86 L.Ed. —-. In this collateral attack upon the judgment of conviction, the petitioner bases his claim on the recantation of one of the witnesses against him. He cannot, of course, contend that mere recantation of testimony is in itself ground for invoking the Due Process Clause against a conviction. However, if Florida through her responsible officials knowingly used false testimony which was extorted from a witness 'by violence and torture', one convicted may claim the protection of the Due Process Clause against a conviction based upon such testimony.

And so we come to the circumstances of this case.

On November 25, 1936, as a result of an attempted robbery, John H. Surrency and his wife Mayme Elizabeth were murdered. On December 16, 1936, Hysler was indicted for the murder of John Surrency; he was tried on January 21, 1937, was convicted on February 12, 1937, with recommendation of mercy, and was thereafter sentenced to imprisonment for life. On February 3, 1938, his sentence was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court. 132 Fla. 200, 181 So. 350. The record in the case was more than 3000 pages. On January 15, 1937, Hysler together with two others, James Baker and Alvin Tyler, was indicted for the murder of Mrs. Surrency. A severance having been granted as to Tyler and Baker, Hysler was placed on trial on March 15, 1937, and on April 5 was found guilty without recommendation of mercy. On April 23, 1937, he was sentenced to death. On April 24 he sued out a writ of error to the state Supreme Court, which on February 3, 1938, sustained the sentence, and on June 3 denied a rehearing. The record on this second trial was some 2500 pages. 132 Fla. 209, 181 So. 354.

Surrency kept a restaurant near Jacksonville and on the fatal day was returning from one of his regular and well-known trips to that city to get checks cashed. Hysler had known Baker in connection with Hysler's illicit whiskey business. Baker and Tyler were friends. The principal evidence in both trials against Hysler was their testimony. They testified with circumstantiality that Hysler induced them to hold up Surrency, furnished them a car, a pistol, and some whiskey, gave them detailed instructions for carrying out the plan, and by prearrangement was in the vicinity of the place of its execution. While their testimony doubtless was the foundation of Hysler's convictions, the testimony both of numerous witnesses and Hysler himself sheds much confirming light on the story told by Baker and Tyler. A careful concurring opinion affirming the conviction now challenged concluded thus: 'From the evidence it is difficult to see or understand how the jury in the court below could have rendered a verdict other than guilty. We have thoroughly considered each assignment and failed to find error in the trial of the cause in the lower court.' 132 Fla. 209, 235, 181 So. 354, 364.

Accordingly, the date for the execution was set by the Governor of Florida for the week of February 20, 1939. In the meantime, however, an application for a writ of habeas corpus by Hysler was made to the Supreme Court of Florida, partly on the ground of insanity. This was denied by that Court on February 20, 1939. 136 Fla. 563, 187 So. 261. Tyler broke jail and has apparently remained a fugitive from justice. Baker was tried after Hysler was convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to death. His conviction was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court on March 14, 1939, and a rehearing denied on April 11, 1939. Baker v. State, 137 Fla. 27, 188 So. 634.

We have now reached the final chapter of this unedifying story in the administration of criminal justice. On April 10, 1941, more than four years after Hysler's conviction for the murder of Mrs. Surrency, he petitioned the Supreme Court of Florida for permission to apply to the Circuit Court of Duval County, Florida (the court before which he was originally tried), for writ of error coram nobis. This common law writ, in its local adaption, is Florida's response to the requirements of Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 55 S.Ct. 340, 79 L.Ed. 791, 98 A.L.R. 406, for the judicial correction of a wrong committed in the administration of criminal justice and resulting in the deprivation of life or liberty without due process. See Lamb v. Florida, 91 Fla. 396, 107 So. 535; Skipper v. Schumacher, 124 Fla. 384, 169 So. 58; Jones v. Florida, 130 Fla. 645, 178 So 404. In brief, a person in Florida who claims that his incarceration is due to 'failure to observe that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice', Lisenba v. California, supra, 314 U.S. 219, 62 S.Ct. at page 290, 86 L.Ed. -, even after his sentence has been duly affirmed by the highest court of the State, has full opportunity to have a jury pass on such a claim provided he first makes an adequate showing of the substantiality of his claim to the satisfaction of the Supreme Court of Florida. The decisions of that Court show that a naked allegation that a constitutional right has been invaded is not sufficient. A petitioner must 'make a full disclosure of the specific facts relied on', and not merely his conclusions 'as to the nature and effect of such facts'. The proof must enable the appellate court to 'ascertain whether, under settled principles pertaining to such writ, the facts alleged would afford, at least prima facie just ground for an application to the lower court for a writ of error coram nobis.' Washington v. Florida, 92 Fla. 740, 749, 110 So. 259, 262; see Skipper v. Schumacher, 124 Fla. 384, 405—408, 169 So. 58; Skipper v. Florida, 127 Fla. 553, 554, 555, 173 So. 692. The latest formulation by the Florida Supreme Court of its function in considering an application for leave to apply to the trial court for a writ of error coram nobis is found in McCall v. Florida, 1939, 136 Fla. 349, 350, 186 So. 803: 'In the exercise of its discretion in matters of this sort the court should look to the reasonableness of the allegations of the petition and to the existence of the probability of the truth thereof. This duty we have met and we are convinced that to grant the petition would be no less than a trifling with justice.'

Such a state procedure of course meets the requirements of the Due Process Clause. Vindication of Constitutional rights under the Due Process Clause does not demand uniformity of procedure by the forty-eight States. Each State is free to devise its own way of secur- ing essential justice in these situations. The Due Process Clause did not stereotype the means for ascertaining the truth of a claim that that which duly appears as the administration of intrinsic justice was such merely in form, that in fact it was a perversion of justice by the law officers of the state. Each State may decide for itself whether, after guilt has been determined by the ordinary processes of trial and affirmed on appeal, a later challenge to its essential justice must come in the first instance, or even in the last instance, before a bench of judges rather than before a jury.

Florida then had ample machinery for correcting the Constitutional wrong of which Hysler complained. But it remains to consider whether in refusing him relief the Supreme Court of Florida denied a proper appeal to its corrective process for protecting a right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Hysler's claim before the Supreme Court of Florida was that Baker repudiated his testimony insofar as it implicated Hysler and that he now named another man as the instigator of the crime. Considering the fact that this repudiation came four years after leaden-footed justice had reached the end of the familiar trail of dilatory procedure, and that Baker now pointed to an instigator who was dead, the Supreme Court of Florida had every right and the plain duty to scrutinize this repudiation with a critical eye, in the light of its familiarity with the facts of this crime as they had...

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    ...lied at trial does not furnish a basis for granting the writ on account of the state's knowing use of perjury."); see also Hysler v. Florida, 315 U.S. 411, 413 (1942) (noting that a defendant "cannot, of course, contend that mere recantation of testimony is in itself ground for invoking the......
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    • Sage ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, The No. 275-1, May 1951
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