Napue v. People of the State of Illinois

Citation360 U.S. 264,3 L.Ed.2d 1217,79 S.Ct. 1173
Decision Date15 June 1959
Docket NumberNo. 583,583
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. George N. Leighton, Chicago, Ill., for petitioner.

Mr. William C. Wines, Chicago, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN, delivered the opinion of the Court.

At the murder trial of petitioner the principal state witness, then serving a 199-year sentence for the same murder, testified in response to a question by the Assistant State's Attorney that he had received no promise of consideration in return for his testimony. The Assistant State's Attorney had in fact promised him consideration, but did nothing to correct the witness' false testimony. The jury was apprised, however, that a public defender had promised 'to do what he could' for the witness. The question presented is whether on these facts the failure f t he prosecutor to correct the testimony of the witness which he knew to be false denied petitioner due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The record in this Court contains testimony from which the following facts could have been found. The murder in question occurred early in the morning of August 21, 1938, in a Chicago, Illinois, cocktail lounge. Petitioner Henry Napue, the witness George Hamer, one Poe and one Townsend entered the dimly lighted lounge and announced their intention to rob those present. An offduty policeman, present in the lounge, drew his service revolver and began firing at the four men. In the melee that followed Townsend was killed, the officer was fatally wounded, and the witness Hamer was seriously wounded. Napue and Poe carried Hamer to the car where a fifth man, one Webb, was waiting. In due course Hamer was apprehended, tried for the murder of the policeman, convicted on his plea of guilty and sentenced to 199 years. Subsequently, Poe was apprehended, tried, convicted, sentenced to death and executed. Hamer was not used as a witness.

Thereafter, petitioner Napue was apprehended. He was put on trial with Hamer being the principal witness for the State. Hamer's testimony was extremely important because the passage of time and the dim light in the cocktail lounge made eyewitness identification very difficult and uncertain, and because some pertinent witnesses had left the state. On the basis of the evidence presented, which consisted largely of Hamer's testimony, the jury returned a guilty verdict and petitioner was sentenced to 199 years.

Finally, the driver of the car, Webb, was apprehended. Hamer also testified against him. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 199 years.

Following the conviction of Webb, the lawyer who, as former Assistant State's Attorney, had prosecuted the Hamer, Poe and Napue cases filed a petition in the nature of a writ of error coram nobis on behalf of Hamer. In the petition he alleged that as prosecuting attorney he had promised Hamer that if he would testify against Napue, 'a recommendation for a reduction of his (Hamer's) sentence would be made and, if possible effectuated.'1 The attorney prayed that the court would effect 'consummation of the compact entered into between the duly authorized representatives of the State of Illinois and George Hamer.'

This coram nobis proceeding came to the attention of Napue, who thereafter filed a post-conviction petition, in which he alleged that Hamer had falsely testified that he had been promised no consideration for his testimony,2 and that the Assistant State's Attorney handling the case had known this to be false. A hearing was ultimately held at which the former Assistant State's Attorney testfie d that he had only promised to help Hamer if Hamer's story 'about being a reluctant participant' in the robbery was borne out, and not merely if Hamer would testify at petitioner's trial. He testified that in his coram nobis petition on Hamer's behalf he 'probably used some language that (he) should not have used' in his 'zeal to do something for Hamer' to whom he 'felt a moral obligation.' The lower court denied petitioner relief on the basis of the attorney's testimony.

On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed on different grounds over two dissents. 13 Ill.2d 566, 150 N.E.2d 613. It found, contrary to the trial court, that the attorney had promised Hamer consideration if he would testify at petitioner's trial, a finding which the State does not contest here. It further found that the Assistant State's Attorney knew that Hamer had lied in denying that he had been promised consideration. It held, however, that petitioner was entitled to no relief since the jury had already been apprised that someone whom Hamer had tentatively identified as being a public defender 'was going to do what he could' in aid of Hamer, and 'was trying to get something did' for him.3 We granted cer- tiorari to consider the question posed in the first paragraph of this opinion. 358 U.S. 919, 79 S.Ct. 293, 3 L.Ed.2d 238.

First, it is established that a conviction obtained through use of false evidence, known to be such by representatives of the State, must fall under the Fourteenth Amendment, Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 55 S.Ct. 340, 79 L.Ed. 791; Pyle v. State of Kansas, 317 U.S. 213, 63 S.Ct. 177, 87 L.Ed. 214; Curran v. State of Delaware, 3 Cir., 259 F.2d 707. See State of New York ex rel. Whitman v. Wilson, 318 U.S. 688, 63 S.Ct. 840, 87 L.Ed. 1083, and White v. Ragen, 324 U.S. 760, 65 S.Ct. 978, 89 L.Ed. 1348. Compare Jones v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 6 Cir., 97 F.2d 335, 338, with In re Sawyer's Petition, 7 Cir., 229 F.2d 805, 809. Cf. Mesarosh v. United States, 352 U.S. 1, 77 S.Ct. 1, 1 L.Ed.2d 1. The same result obtains when the State al though not soliciting false evidence, allows it to go uncorrected when it appears. Alcorta v. State of Texas, 355 U.S. 28, 78 S.Ct. 103, 2 L.Ed.2d 9; United States ex rel. Thompson v. Dye, 3 Cir., 221 F.2d 763; United States ex rel. Almeida v. Baldi, 3 Cir., 195 F.2d 815, 33 A.L.R.2d 1407; United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Ragen, D.C., 86 F.Supp. 382. See generally annotation, 2 L.Ed.2d 1575.

The principle that a State may not knowingly use false evidence, including false testimony, to obtain a tainted conviction, implicit in any concept of ordered liberty, does not cease to apply merely because the false testimony goes only to the credibility of the witness. The jury's estimate of the truthfulness and reliability of a given witness may well be determinative of guilt or innocence, and it is upon such subtle factors as the possible interest of the witness in testifying falsely that a defendant's life or liberty may depend. As stated by the New York Court of Appeals in a case very similar to this one, People v. Savvides, 1 N.Y.2d 554, 557, 154 N.Y.S.2d 885, 887, 136 N.E.2d 853, 854—855:

'It is of no consequence that the falsehood bore upon the witness' credibility rather than directly upon defendant's guilt. A lie is a lie, no matter what its subject, and, if it is in any way relevant to the case, the district attorney has the responsibility and duty to correct what he knows to be false and elicit the truth. * * * That the district attorney's silence was not the result of guile or a desire to prejudice matters little, for its impact was the same, preventing, as it did, a trial that could in any real sense be termed fair.'

Second, we do not believe that the fact that the jury was apprised of other grounds for believing that the witness Hamer may have had an interest in testifying against petitioner turned what was otherwise a tainted trial into a fair one. As Mr. Justice Schaefer, joined by Chief Justice Davis, rightly put it in his dissenting opinion below, 13 Ill.2d 566, 571, 150 N.E.2d 613, 616:

'What is overlooked here is that Hamer clearly testified that no one had offered to help him except an unidentified lawyer from the public defender's office.'

Had the jury been apprised of the true facts, however, it might well have concluded that Hamer had fabricated testimony in order to curry the favor of the very representative of the State who was prosecuting the case in which Hamer was testifying, for Hamer might have believed that such a representative was in a position to implement (as he ultimately attempted to do) any promise of consideration. That the Assistant State's Attorney himself thought it important to establish before the jury that no official source had promised Hamer consideration is made clear by his redirect examination, which was the last testimony of Hamer's heard by the jury:

'Q. Mr. Hamer, has Judge Prystalski (the trial judge) promised you any reduction of sentence?

A. No, sir.

'Q. Have I promised you that I would recommend any reduction of sentence to anybody? A. You did not. (That answer was false and known to be so by the prosecutor.)

'Q. Has any Judge of the criminal court promised that they (sic) would reduce your sentence? A. No, sir.

'Q. Has any representative of the Parole Board been to see you and promised you a reduction of sentence? A. No, sir.

'Q. Has any representative of the Governor of the State of Illinois promised you a reduction of sentence? A. No, sir.'

We are therefore unable to agree with the Illinois Supreme Court that 'there was no constitutional infirmity by virtue of the false statement.'

Third, the State argues that we are not free to reach a factual conclusion different from that reached by the Illinois Supreme Court, and that we are bound by its determination that the false testimony could not in any reasonable likelihood have affected the judgment of the jury. The State relies on Hysler v. State of Florida, 315 U.S. 411, 62 S.Ct. 688, 86 L.Ed. 932. But i th at case the Court held only that a state standard of specificity and substantiality in making allegations of federal constitutional deprivations would be respected, and this Court made its own 'independent examination'...

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