Irvin v. Dowd

Decision Date04 May 1959
Docket NumberNo. 63,63
Citation79 S.Ct. 825,359 U.S. 394,3 L.Ed.2d 900
PartiesLeslie IRVIN, Petitioner, v. Alfred F. DOWD, Warden of the Indiana State Prison
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Theodore Lockyear and James D. Lopp, Evansville, Ind., and James D. Nafe, South Bend, Ind., for petitioner.

Mr. Richard M. Givan, Indianapolis, Ind., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner brought this habeas corpus proceeding in the District Court for the Northern District of Indiana under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2241,1 claiming that his conviction for murder in the Circuit Court of Gibson County, Indiana, was obtained in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court dismissed the writ, D.C., 153 F.Supp. 531, under the provision of 28 U.S.C. § 2254, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254, that habeas corpus 'shall not be granted unless it appears that the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State * * *.'2 The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. 7 Cir., 251 F.2d 548. We granted certiorari, 356 U.S. 948, 78 S.Ct. 921, 2 L.Ed.2d 842.3

The constitutional claim arises in this way. Six murders were committed in the vicinity of Evansville, Indiana, two in December 1954, and four in March 1955. The crimes, extensively covered by news media in the locality, aroused great excitement and indignation throughout Vanderburgh County, where Evansville is located, and adjoining Gibson County, a rural county of approxiate ly 30,000 inhabitants. The petitioner was arrested on April 8, 1955. Shortly thereafter, the Prosecutor of Vanderburgh County and Evansville police officials issued press releases, which were intensively publicized, stating that the petitioner had confessed to the six murders. The Vanderburgh County Grand Jury soon indicted the petitioner for the murder which resulted in his conviction. This was the murder of Whitney Wesley Kerr allegedly committed in Vanderburgh County on December 23, 1954. Counsel appointed to defend petitioner immediately sought a change of venue from Vanderburgh County, which was granted, but to adjoining Gibson County. Alleging that the widespread and inflammatory publicity had also highly prejudiced the inhabitants of Gibson County against the petitioner, counsel, on October 29, 1955, sought another change of venue, from Gibson County to a county sufficiently removed from the Evansville locality that a fair trial would not be prejudiced. The motion was denied, apparently because the pertinent Indiana statute allows only a single change of venue.4

The voir dire examinations of prospective jurors began in Gibson County on November 14, 1955. The averments as to the prejudice by which the trial was allegedly environed find corroboration in the fact that from the first day of the voir dire considerable difficulty was experienced in selecting jurors who did not have fixed opinions that the petitioner was guilty. The petitioner's counsel therefore renewed his motion for a change of venue, which motion was denied. He renewed the motion a second time, on December 7, 1955, reciting in his moving papers: 'in the voir dire examination of 355 jurors called in this case to qualify as jurors 233 have expressed and formed their opinion as stated in said voir dire, that the defendant is guilty * * *.' Again the motion was denied. Alternatively, on each of eight days over the four weeks required to select a jury, counsel sought a continuance of the trial on the ground that a fair trial at that time was not possible in the prevailing atmosphere of hostility toward the petitioner. All of the motions for a continuance were denied. The State Prosecutor, in a radio broadcast during the second week of the voir dire examination, stated that 'the unusual coverage given to the case by the newspapers and radio' caused 'trouble in getting a jury of people who are not (sic) unbiased and unprejudiced in the case.'

The petitioner's counsel exhausted all 20 of his peremptory challenges, and when 12 jurors were ultimately accepted by the court also unsuccessfully challenged all of them for alleged bias and prejudice against the petitioner, complaining particularly that four of the jurors, in their voir dire examinations, stated that they had an opinion that petitioner was guilty of the murder charged.5

Also, at the trial, the State's Prosecuting Attorney took the stand as part of his presentation of the State's case, and over petitioner's objection was allowed to testify that the petitioner, five days after his arrest, on April 13, 1955, had orally confessed the murder of Kerr to him. The Prosecuting Attorney was also permitted in summation, again over petitioner's objection, to vouch his own testimony by commenting to the jury, 'I testified myself what was told me.'

The opinions of the Indiana Supreme Court and the District Court held the constitutional claim to be without merit. Irvin v. State, 236 Ind. 384, 392—394, 139 N.E.2d 898, 901—902; Irvin v. Dowd, D.C., 153 F.Supp. 531, 535—539. On the other hand, Chief Judge Duffy of the Court of Appeals, concurring in the affirmance of the dismissal by the District Court, reached a contrary conclusion: 'Irvin was not accorded due process of law in the trial which resulted in his conviction and death sentence. In my judgment, he did not receive a fair trial because some of the jury had preconceived opinions as to defendant's guilt, and also because of the conduct of the prosecuting attorney.' 7 Cir., 251 F.2d 548, 554.

The Gibson County jury returned its verdict on December 20, 1955, and assessed the death penalty. Indiana law allows 30 days from the date of the verdict within which to file a motion for a new trial in the trial court. Burns' Ind.Stat.Ann., 1956 Replacement Vol s 9—1903. The petitioner's counsel, on January 19, 1956, the 30th day, filed such a motion specifying 415 grounds of error constituting the alleged denial of constitutional rights. However, the petitioner had escaped from custody the night before, January 18, 1956, and on January 23, 1956, the trial court overruled the motion, noting that the petitioner had been an escapee when the motion was filed and was still at large. The petitioner was captured in California about three weeks later and, on February 17, 1956, was confined in the Indiana State Prison.

Under Indiana law the denial of the new trial was not appealable, but was reviewable by the Indiana Supreme Court only if assigned as error in the event of an appeal from the judgment of conviction. The State Supreme Court has held:

'The statute (providing for appeal) does not authorize an appeal from every ruling which a court may make against a defendant in a criminal action, but only authorizes an appeal 'from any judgment * * * against him,' and provides for review, upon such appeal, of decisions and rulings of the court made in the progress of the case. This court has construed the statute as authorizing an appeal only from a final judgment in a criminal action. The action of a trial court in overruling a motion for a new trial may be reviewed upon an appeal from a judgment of conviction rendered against a defendant, but the overruling of a motion for a new trial must be assigned as error. In such case the appeal is from the judgment of conviction and not from the ruling upon the motion for a new trial. The overruling of a motion for a new trial does not constitute a judgment, and an appeal does not lie from the court's action in overruling such motion.' Selke v. State, 211 Ind. 232, 234, 6 N.E.2d 50, 571.

The judgment of conviction imposing the death sentence was entered January 9, 1956. The petitioner was entitled to appeal, as a matter of right, from that judgment, provided, in compliance with a State Supreme Court rule,6 the appeal was perfected by filing with the Clerk of the Supreme Court a transcript of the trial record and an assignment of errors within 90 days of the judgment. The Supreme Court may, in its discretion, extend the time on proper motion made within the 90-day period. The questions before the Supreme Court are those raised by the appellant in his assignment of errors.

On March 22, 1956, the petitioner applied for an extension of time within which to file the trial transcript and his assignment of errors. This was after he was returned to the custody of the State and well within 90 days from January 9, 1956, the date of the judgment of conviction. We were advised on oral argument that the State objected to this motion 'because he (petitioner) had escaped,' and a hearing was held on the objection by the State Supreme Court. Petitioner's motion was granted and the time was extended to June 1, 1956. The assignment of errors, timely filed with the trial transcript of some 5,000 pages, assigned only one ground of error—that 'the (trial) Court erred in overruling appellant's motion for new trial.' The petitioner's brief of over 700 pages opened by advising the State Supreme Court that 'Under this single assignment of error, the appellant has combined all errors alleged to have been committed prior to the filing of the motion for a new trial.' In short, the form of the assignment was a short hand way of specifying the 415 grounds stated in the motion for new trial as constituting the claimed denial of constitutional rights. Indeed the only arguments made in the lengthy brief related to the constitutional claim. The State's brief devoted some 70 pages to answering these contentions, and in 7 additional pages argued that in any event the Circuit Court had not erred in denying the motion for a new trial because the petitioner was an escapee at the time it was filed and decided.

The case before the Indiana Supreme Court was thus an appeal perfected in ull compliance with Indiana procedure; therefore, the court was required under Indiana law to pass on the merits of the petitioner's assignment of error. That the assignment of error was sufficient to...

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