Leyra v. Denno

Decision Date01 June 1954
Docket NumberNo. 635,635
Citation347 U.S. 556,98 L.Ed. 948,74 S.Ct. 716
CourtU.S. Supreme Court


Osmond K. Fraenkel, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. William I. Siegel, Brooklyn, N.Y., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Camilo Leyra, age 75, and his wife, age 80, were found dead in their Brooklyn apartment. Several days later petitioner, their son, age 50, was indicted in a state court charged with having murdered them with a hammer. He was convicted and sentenced to death, chiefly on several alleged confessions of guilt. The New York Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that one of the confessions, made to a state-employed psychiatrist, had been extorted from petitioner by coercion and promises of leniency in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.1 People v. Leyra, 302 N.Y. 353, 98 N.E.2d 553. Petitioner was then tried again. This time the invalidated confession was not used to convict him but several other confessions that followed it the same day were used. Petitioner objected to the admission of these other confessions on the ground that they were also coerced, but the trial court submitted to the jury the question of their 'voluntariness.' The jury convicted and the death sentence now before us was imposed.2 The New York Court of Appeals, holding that there was evidence to support a finding that the confessions used were free from the coercive influences of the one previously given the psychiatrist, affirmed, Judge Fuld and the late Chief Judge Loughran dissenting. People v. Leyra, 304 N.Y. 468, 108 N.E.2d 673. We denied certiorari. 345 U.S. 918, 73 S.Ct. 730, 97 L.Ed. 1351. Petitioner then filed this habeas corpus proceeding in a United States District Court, charging that the confessions used against him had been coerced, depriving him of due process of law. The District Court properly gave consideration to the petition, Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 73 S.Ct. 397, 437, 97 L.Ed. 469, but denied it. 113 F.Supp. 556. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, Judge Frank dissenting. 208 F.2d 605. Petitioner then sought re- view in this Court, again urging that he was denied due process on the ground that his confessions to a police captain and to two assistant state prosecutors were forced. We granted certiorari because the constitutional question appeared substantial. 347 U.S. 926, 74 S.Ct. 533.

The use in a state criminal trial of a defendant's confession obtained by coercion—whether physical or mental—is forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment. 3 The question for our decision is therefore whether the present confessions were so coerced. This question can only be answered by reviewing the circumstances surrounding the confessions. We therefore examine the circumstances as shown by the undisputed facts of this case.

When the father failed to appear at his place of business on Tuesday, January 10, 1950, petitioner, his business partner, and others went to the father's apartment about 3 p.m. and found the bodies of the aged parents. Police were called. Although they first suspected a prowling intruder, the presence on the couple's disarranged breakfast table of a third teacup led them to think that the killer was a welcome guest. This and other circumstances drew suspicion toward petitioner. He and others were questioned by the police until about 11 p.m. on the evening of the day the bodies were discovered. On Wednesday, police again questioned petitioner from about 10 in the morning to midnight. Once more, be- ginning about 9 Thursday morning petitioner was subjected to almost constant police questioning throughout the day and much of the night until about 8:30 Friday morning. At that time petitioner was taken by police to his partents' funeral. While petitioner was at the funeral and until he returned in the late afternoon, Captain Meenahan, his chief police questioner, went home to get some 'rest.' After the funeral petitioner himself was permitted to go to a hotel and sleep an hour and a half. He was returned to the police station about 5 p.m. on this Friday afternoon. During his absence a concealed microphone had been installed with wire connections to another room in which the state prosecutor, the police, and possibly some others were stationed to overhear what petitioner might say. Up to this time he had not confessed to the crime.

The petitioner had been suffering from an acutely painful attack of sinus and Captain Meenahan had promised to get a physician to help him. When petitioner returned to the questioning room after the funeral, Captain Meenahan introduced him to 'Dr. Helfand,' supposedly to give petitioner medical relief. Dr. Helfand, however, was not a general practitioner but a psychiatrist with considerable knowledge of hypnosis. Petitioner was left with Dr. Helfand while Captain Meenahan joined the state District Attorney in the nearby listening room. Instead of giving petitioner the medical advice and treatment he expected, the psychiatrist by subtle and suggestive questions simply continued the police effort of the past days and nights to induce petitioner to admit his guilt. For an hour and a half or more the techniques of a highly trained psychiatrist were used to break petitioner's will in order to get him to say he had murdered his parents. Time and time and time again the psychiatrist told petitioner how much he wanted to and could help him, how bad it would be for petitioner if he did not confess, and how much better he would feel, and how much lighter and easier it would be on him if he would just unbosom himself to the doctor. Yet the doctor was at that very time the paid representative of the state whose prosecuting officials were listening in on every threat made and every promise of leniency given.

A tape recording of the psychiatric examination was made and a transcription of the tape was read into the record of this case. To show exactly what transpired we attach rather lengthy excerpts from that transcription as an appendix. The petitioner's answers indicate a mind dazed and bewildered. Time after time the petitioner complains about how tired and how sleepy he is and how he cannot think. On occasion after occasion the doctor told petitioner either to open his eyes or to shut his eyes. Apparently many of petitioner's answers were barely audible. On occasions the doctor informed petitioner that his lips were moving but no sound could be heard. Many times petitioner was asked to speak louder. As time went on, the record indicates that petitioner began to accept suggestions of the psychiatrist. For instance, Dr. Helfand suggested that petitioner had hit his parents with a hammer and after some minutes petitioner agreed that must have been the weapon.

Finally, after an hour and a half or longer, petitioner, encouraged by the doctor's assurances that he had done no moral wrong and would be let off easily, called for Captain Meenahan. The captain immediately appeared. It was then that the confession was given to him which was admitted against petitioner in this trial. Immediately following this confession to Captain Meenahan, petitioner's business partner was called from an adjoining room. The police had apparently brought the business partner there to have him talk to petitioner at an opportune moment. Petitioner repeated to his partner in a very brief way some of the things he had told the psychia- trist and the captain. Following this, petitioner was questioned by the two assistant state prosecutors. What purports to be his formal confession was taken down by their stenographer, with a notation that it was given at 10 p.m., several hours after the psychiatrist took petitioner in charge.

On the first appeal the New York Court of Appeals held that the admissions petitioner made to the psychiatrist were so clearly the product of 'mental coercion' that their use as evidence was inconsistent with due process of law. On the second appeal, however, that court held that the subsequent confessions here challenged were properly admitted. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held the same thing. With this holding we cannot agree. Unlike the circumstances in Lyons v. State of Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 602, 603, 64 S.Ct. 1208, 1212, 88 L.Ed. 1481, the undisputed facts in this case are irreconcilable with petitioner's mental freedom 'to confess to or deny a suspected participation in a crime', and the relation of the confessions made to the psychiatrist, the police captain and the state prosecutors, is 'so close that one must sya the facts of one control the character of the other * * *.' All were simply parts of one continuous process. All were extracted in the same place within a period of about five hours as the climax of days and nights of intermittent, intensive police questioning. First, an already physically and emotionally exhausted suspect's ability to resist interrogation was broken to almost trance-like submission by use of the arts of a highly skilled psychiatrist. Then the confession petitioner began making to the psychiatrist was filled in and perfected by additional statements given in rapid succession to a police officer, a trusted friend, and two state prosecutors. We hold that use of confessions extracted in such a manner from a lone defendant unprotected by counsel is not consistent with due process of law as required by our Constitution.

It was error for the court below to affirm the District Court's denial of petitioner's application for habeas corpus.


Mr. Justice JACKSON took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Appendix to Opinion of the Court.

Excerpts from the transcript of the questioning of petitioner by Dr. Max Helfand, a psychiatrist, at the 88th precinct on January 13, 1950.

'Q. What do they call you for short? A. Buddy.'

'Q. How old are you about? A. Fifty.'

'Q. Are you married? A. Yes, sir.'

'Q. Buddy, will you...

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    ...coercion. It is clear that deceit coupled with overbearing practices will render a confession involuntary. (Leyra v. Denno (1954) 347 U.S. 556, 74 S.Ct. 716, 98 L.Ed. 948.) However, there is also authority that deceit alone is not coercive. (People v. Atchley (1959) 53 Cal.2d 160, 346 P.2d ......
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