Miller v. Fenton

Decision Date03 December 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-5786,84-5786
PartiesFrank M. MILLER, Jr., Petitioner v. Peter J. FENTON, Superintendent, Rahway State Prison, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner, after a 58-minute interrogation at the New Jersey State Police Barracks, confessed to a murder. The New Jersey trial court rejected his motion to suppress the confession, and the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division reversed, finding as a matter of law that the confession was the result of compulsion and thus was impermissible under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantee. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding, after examining the "totality of all the surrounding circumstances," that the interrogation was proper and that the resulting confession, being voluntary, had been properly admitted into evidence. Petitioner then sought a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court, which dismissed the petition without an evidentiary hearing. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the voluntariness of a confession is a "factual issue" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which provides that state-court findings of fact, with certain exceptions, "shall be presumed to be correct" in a federal habeas corpus proceeding, and that accordingly federal review of the New Jersey Supreme Court's determination that petitioner's confession was voluntary was limited to whether that court applied the proper legal test and whether its factual conclusions were supported by the record. Under this standard, the Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court's denial of the habeas corpus petition was proper.

Held: The voluntariness of a confession is not an issue of fact entitled to the § 2254(d) presumption but is a legal question meriting independent consideration in a federal habeas corpus proceeding. Pp. 109-118.

(a) There is no support in this Court's decisions for the suggestion that the enactment of § 2254(d) in 1966 altered this Court's prior confession cases holding that the ultimate issue of "voluntariness" is a legal question requiring independent federal determination. More importantly, § 2254(d)'s history undermines any argument that Congress intended that the ultimate question of the admissibility of a confession be treated as a "factual issue" within the meaning of that provision. Pp. 109-112.

(b) In addition to considerations of stare decisis and congressional intent, the nature of the "voluntariness" inquiry itself lends support to the holding in this case. Moreover, the practical considerations that have led this Court to find other issues within the scope of the § 2254(d) presumption are absent in the confession context. Unlike such issues as the impartiality of a juror or competency to stand trial, assessments of credibility and demeanor are not crucial to the proper resolution of the ultimate issue of voluntariness. And the critical events surrounding the taking of a confession almost invariably occur, not in open court, but in a secret and more coercive environment. Pp. 112-118.

741 F.2d 1456, (CA3 1984), reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, P. 118.

Paul Martin Klein, East Orange, N.J., for petitioner.

Anne C. Paskow, Trenton, N.J., for respondents.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), state-court findings of fact "shall be presumed to be correct" in a federal habeas corpus proceeding unless one of eight enumerated exceptions applies.1 The question presented is whether the voluntariness of a confession is an issue of fact entitled to the § 2254(d) presumption.

I

On the morning of August 13, 1973, a stranger approached the rural New Jersey home of 17-year-old Deborah Margolin and told her that a heifer was loose at the foot of her driveway. She set out alone to investigate and never returned. Later that day, her mutilated body was found in a nearby stream.

The victim's brothers were able to provide a description of the stranger's car and clothing. Based on this information, officers of the New Jersey State Police tentatively identified petitioner and, later that evening, found him at his place of employment. Petitioner responded to the officers' preliminary inquiries and agreed to return to the police barracks for further questioning. Approximately two hours later, Detective Charles Boyce led petitioner to an interrogation room and informed him of his Miranda rights. Petitioner inquired about the scope of his privilege to remain silent and then executed a written waiver, the validity of which is not at issue.

A 58 minute long interrogation session ensued. During the course of the interview, Detective Boyce told petitioner that Ms. Margolin had just died. That statement, which Boyce knew to be untrue, supported another officer's earlier, and equally false, suggestion that the victim was still alive and could identify her attacker. App. 16-17; Record 109 and 305. Detective Boyce also told petitioner that he had been identified at the Margolin home earlier in the day. In fact, Ms. Margolin's brothers had only provided a general description of the stranger's car and clothing. Finally, Detective Boyce indicated that blood stains had been found on petitioner's front stoop. No such evidence was introduced at trial, and respondents do not now contend that it ever in fact existed.

Throughout the interview, Detective Boyce presented himself as sympathetic to petitioner's plight. On several occasions, he stated that he did not consider petitioner to be a criminal because the perpetrator of the deed had a "mental problem" and needed medical help rather than punishment. App. 19.2 Eventually, petitioner fully confessed to the crime. After doing so, he lapsed into what Detective Boyce described as a "state of shock." Record 84-85. Repeated efforts to rouse him from his stupor failed, and the police summoned an ambulance to transport him to the hospital.

The trial court rejected petitioner's motion to suppress the confession, and the jury found petitioner guilty of murder in the first degree. The Superior Court Appellate Division reversed, finding as a matter of law that the confession was the result of "intense and mind bending psychological compulsion" and therefore was impermissible under the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of due process. App. 53. Over three dissents, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed again. State v. Miller, 76 N.J. 392, 388 A.2d 218 (1978). After examining the "totality of all the surrounding circumstances," including petitioner's educational level, age, and awareness of his Miranda rights, the court found that the interrogation "did not exceed proper bounds," and that the resulting confession, being voluntary, had been properly admitted into evidence. Id., at 402-405, 388 A.2d, at 223-224.

Petitioner then sought a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. That court dismissed the application without an evidentiary hearing. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. 741 F.2d 1456 (1984). Relying on Circuit precedent,3 the court held that the voluntariness of a confession is a "factual issue" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Accordingly, federal review of the New Jersey Supreme Court's determination that petitioner's confession was voluntary was "limited to whether the state court applied the proper legal test, and whether [its] factual conclusions . . . [were] supported on the record as a whole." 741 F.2d, at 1462. Under this standard, the court concluded the District Court's denial of the petition for habeas relief was proper.

Because the Courts of Appeals have reached differing conclusions on whether state-court voluntariness determinations are entitled to the § 2254(d) presumption of correctness, and because of the issue's importance to the administration of criminal justice, we granted certiorari. 471 U.S. 1003, 105 S.Ct. 1863, 85 L.Ed.2d 157 (1985). Compare Brantley v. McKaskle, 722 F.2d 187, 188 (CA5 1984) "( [V]oluntariness of a confession is a mixed question of law and fact"), with Alexander v. Smith, 582 F.2d 212, 217 (CA2) (state-court voluntariness determination entitled to 2254(d) presumption), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 990, 99 S.Ct. 589, 58 L.Ed.2d 664 (1978). We now reverse and remand.

II

This Court has long held that certain interrogation techniques, either in isolation or as applied to the unique characteristics of a particular suspect, are so offensive to a civilized system of justice that they must be condemned under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461, 80 L.Ed. 682 (1936), was the wellspring of this notion, now deeply embedded in our criminal law. Faced with statements extracted by beatings and other forms of physical and psychological torture, the Court held that confessions procured by means "revolting to the sense of justice" could not be used to secure a conviction. Id., at 286, 56 S.Ct. at 465. On numerous subsequent occasions the Court has set aside convictions secured through the admission of an improperly obtained confession. See, e.g., Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 98 S.Ct. 2408, 57 L.Ed.2d 290 (1978); Haynes v. Washington, 373 U.S. 503, 83 S.Ct. 1336, 10 L.Ed.2d 513 (1963); Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 64 S.Ct. 921, 88 L.Ed. 1192 (1944); Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 235-238, 60 S.Ct. 472, 476-77, 84 L.Ed. 716 (1940). Although these decisions framed the legal inquiry in a variety of different ways, usually through the "convenient shorthand" of asking whether the confession was "involuntary," Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199,...

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