Lisenba v. People of State of California 14 8212 15, 1941

Decision Date08 December 1941
Docket NumberNos. 4 and 5,s. 4 and 5
PartiesLISENBA v. PEOPLE OF STATE OF CALIFORNIA. Reargued Oct. 14—15, 1941
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 315 U.S. 826, 62 S.Ct. 620, 86 L.Ed. —-.

[Syllabus from pages 219-221 intentionally omitted] Mr. Morris Lavine, of Los Angeles, Cal., for petitioner.

Messrs. Everett W. Mattoon and Eugene D. Williams, both of Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County. The Supreme Court of California, affirmed the judgment March 21, 1939, two judges dissenting.1 A rehearing was granted, the case was reargued and, October 5, 1939, the decision was reaffirmed and the former opinion adopted and amplified, two justices dissenting.2 No question arising under the Constitution of the United States had been raised or decided. In a second petition for rehearing the petitioner, for the first time, asserted that his conviction violated the Fourteenth Amendment. November 3, 1939, the Court ruled: 'The petition for a rehearing herein is denied.'

The Chief Justice of the State allowed an appeal November 6, 1939, and November 8, 1939, executed a certificate in which he enumerated the constitutional questions presented by the second petition for rehearing; stated that the court entertained the petition, and explicitly overruled each of the contentions made therein; certified that the decision denying rehearing 'is to be interpreted and considered as holding against the appellant's contention that his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States * * * were violated'; and concluded: 'It ordered that this certificate be filed in this court and made part of the record on appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.' On the record so made this Court has jurisdiction to review the judgment.3

The appellant did not draw in question the constitutional validity of any statute of California. We, therefore, dismissed the appeal4 but, treating the papers as a petition for certiorari,5 we granted the writ. This case is No. 4.

October 31, 1939, the petitioner prayed the Supreme Court of California for a writ of habeas corpus on the theory that his trial and conviction had deprived him of his life without due process. He submitted affidavits of one Hope, who had turned state's evidence against him. In these Hope asserted that his testimony was false, had been coerced by threats and induced by promises of leniency and by fraud.

November 9, 1939, habeas corpus was denied, without prejudice. The Chief Justice of California allowed an appeal and made, and ordered filed of record, a certificate respecting the constitutional questions presented and decided by the court, similar to that entered in No. 4. We followed the same course as in No. 4 and the case is here as No. 5.

The appeals were presented in forma pauperis. The typewritten record is of great length. In the belief that only by briefs and oral argument, and on a record printed by the court, could proper consideration and decision be had of certain apparently important questions presented, we issued the writs. The cases were argued at the October 1940 term, and the judgments were affirmed by a divided Court. A petition for rehearing before a full Court was granted, the affirmances set aside, and the causes set for rehearing at this term.6

The petitioner, who used, and was commonly known by, the name of Robert S. James (and will be so called), and one Hope were indicted May 6, 1936, for the murder of James' wife on August 5, 1935. Hope pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment. James pleaded not guilty, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The trial was a long one in which the petitioner made objections to rulings and to the charge, which raise questions of state law decided by the opinion below, with which we have no concern. We shall refer only to so much of the evidence as bears upon the constitutional questions open here.

The State's theory is that the petitioner conceived the plan of marrying, insuring his wife's life by policies providing double indemnity for accidental death, killing her in a manner to give the appearance of accident, and collecting double indemnity.

James employed Mary E. Busch as a manicurist in his barber shop in March, 1935, and, about a month later, went through a marriage ceremony with her, which was not legal as he then had a living wife. While they were affianced, insurance was negotiated on her life, with James as beneficiary. Upon the annulment of the earlier marriage a lawful ceremony was performed. The petitioner made sure that the policies were not annulled by the fact that when they were issued Mary had not been his lawful wife.

The allegation is that James enlisted one Hope in a conspiracy to do away with Mary and collect and divide the insurance on her life. Hope testified that, at James' instigation, he procured rattlesnakes which were to bite and kill Mary; that they appeared not to be sufficiently venomous for the purpose but he ultimately purchased others and delivered them to James; that James, on August 4, 1935, blindfolded his wife's eyes, tied her to a table, had Hope bring one of the snakes into the room and caused the reptile to bite her foot; that, during the night James told Hope the bite did not have the desired effect and, in the early morning of August 5, he told Hope that he was going to drown his wife; that later he said to Hope, 'That is that', and still later, at his request, Hope aided him in carrying the body to the yard, and James placed the body face down at the edge of a fish pond with the head and shoulders in the water.

James was at his barber shop on August 5. On that evening he took two friends home for dinner. When they arrived the house was dark and empty, and, upon a search of the grounds, his wife's body was found in the position indicated. An autopsy showed the lungs were almost filled with water. The left great toe showed a puncture and the left leg was greatly swollen and almost black. Nothing came of the investigation of the death.

James attempted to collect double indemnity; the insurers refused to pay; suits were instituted and one of them settled. As a result of this activity, a fresh investigation of Mary James' death was instituted. On April 19, 1936, officers arrested James for the crime of incest. He was booked on this charge on the morning of April 21, was given a hearing and remanded to jail. On May 2 and 3 he made statements respecting his wife's death to the prosecuting officials.

At the trial, in addition to that of Hope, testimony was adduced as to the finding and condition of the body, other evidence to connect James with the death, and expert testimony that the condition of the left leg could be attributed to rattlesnake bites. The purchase of snakes by Hope was proved by him and several other witnesses one of whom said he sold the two snakes to Hope, one of which Hope claimed had bitten Mary James. Two snakes were brought into court which the witness identified as those sold to Hope and by Hope resold to the witness.

James' statements were offered in evidence. Objection was made that they were not voluntary. Before they were admitted the trial judge heard testimony offered by the State and the defendant on that issue. He ruled that the confessions were admissible, and they were received in evidence.

The State offered evidence with respect to the death of a former wife of James in 1932. This tended to prove that, while driving down Pike's Peak, their automobile went off the road. James went for aid. When the persons called upon reached the automobile they found James' wife lying partly outside the car with her head badly crushed and a bloody hammer in the back of the car. James appeared unhurt. The woman recovered from her injuries but, shortly afterwards, was discovered by James and another man drowned in the bathtub in a house James had temporarily leased at Colorado Springs. James collected double indemnity from insurance companies for her death, the insurance having been placed at about the time he married her and her death having occurred within a few months thereafter. This evidence was admitted over objection and, at the close of the State's case, defendant's counsel moved for an adjournment so that they might take depositions of witnesses in Colorado. The court refused the application for want of a sufficient showing.

The petitioner's contentions, based upon the Fourteenth Amendment, are: that the conduct of the prosecuting officials and police officers denied him the equal protection of the laws; that his conviction deprived him of his life without due process, because the testimony of Hope, an accomplice, was not corroborated as required by the Penal Code of California and was, therefore, insufficient to sustain a conviction; because Hope's affidavits filed since the trial showed that his testimony was obtained by deceit, fraud, collusion, and coercion and was known to the prosecutor to be false and hence the trial was a mere pretense; because the alleged occurrences in Colorado were wholly disconnected from the crime charged and petitioner was afforded no opportunity to answer the State's evidence respecting them; because the production of the rattlesnakes in the court was solely for the purpose of inflaming the jury; and because physical violence, threats, and other coercive means produced the confessions, and denial of requested opportunity to consult counsel preceded and accompanied their procurement.

First. The contention that illegal conduct on the part of the State's officers deprived petitioner of the equal protection of the laws hardly needs notice. The claim is that where officers violate the law so that some defendants are treated as was petitioner, and others are...

To continue reading

Request your trial
1347 cases
  • Jernigan v. Edward
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of California
    • 7 Noviembre 2017
    ...S.Ct. at 210. See alsoHam v. South Carolina, 409 U.S. 524, 526, 93 S.Ct. 848, 850, 35 L.Ed.2d 46 (1973); Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 236, 62 S.Ct. 280, 289, 86 L.Ed. 166 (1941); Hebert v. Louisiana, 272 U.S. 312, 316, 47 S.Ct. 103, 104, 71 L.Ed. 270 (1926); Hurtado v. California, 1......
  • Roller v. McKellar
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
    • 18 Abril 1989 111-15. Federal courts generally will not review a state trial court's actions in admitting evidence. Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 228, 62 S.Ct. 280, 286, 86 L.Ed. 166 (1941). Only evidentiary rulings which deprive a state court defendant of fundamental fairness are cognizable in......
  • People v. Blum
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • 21 Noviembre 1973
    ...false evidence, but to prevent fundamental unfairness in the use of evidence whether true or false . . ..' (Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 236, 62 S.Ct. 280, 290, 86 L.Ed. 166.) California faithfully follows the pertinent constitutional precepts by its rule that 'appellate court must ......
  • Orona v. Hedgepeth, 1:12-CV-00581 LJO GSA HC
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of California
    • 24 Agosto 2012
    ...instruction violates the Constitution if its use "so infused the trial with unfairness as to deny due process of law." Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 228 (1941). The instruction "must be considered in the context of the instructions as a whole and the trial record." Estelle, 502 U.S. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
18 books & journal articles

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