Robert West v. State of Louisiana

Decision Date02 May 1904
Docket NumberNo. 230,230
PartiesROBERT L. WEST and Others, Plffs. in Err ., v. STATE OF LOUISIANA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The plaintiffs in error were proceeded against by information, and were convicted of larceny in the criminal district court of the parish of Orleans, Louisiana, on April 4, 1902, and sentenced to three years' imprisonment, which conviction and sentence were thereafter affirmed by the supreme court of Louisiana. 109 La. 622, 33 So. 618. They have brought the case here by writ of error.

On the trial the district attorney offered to real the testimony of one Thebaud, after having proved that he was permanently absent from the state and was a nonresident thereof, and that his attendance could not be procured. it appeared that the plaintiffs in error had been arrested and charged with the crime for which they were then on trial, and had been brought before the judge of the city criminal court, sitting as a committing magistrate, and upon the hearing before him, in the presence of the plaintiffs in error and their counsel, the witness Thebaud had been produced and examined orally, and cross-examined by the counsel for plaintiffs in error. The offer of the district attorney, after he had made this proof, to read the testimony thus taken upon the preliminary examination, was objected to by counsel for plaintiffs in error on various grounds, the material one now urged being that it was not shown that the witness whose deposition was proposed to be read was dead, insane, or sick, nor that he was absent by the procurement of the plaintiffs in error or their counsel, and it was insisted that the reading of that testimony would be in violation of the act of 1805, being now § 976 of the Revised Statutes of Louisiana, and of article 9 of the Bill of Rights and Constitution of that state, and also would violate the 6th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution of the United States.

The act of 1805 reads as follows:

'All crimes, offenses, and misdemeanors shall be taken, intended, and construed according to, and in conformity with, the common law of England; and the forms of indictment (devested, however, of unnecessary prolixity), the method of trial, the rules of evidence, and all other proceedings whatsoever in the prosecution of crimes, offenses, and misdemeanors, changing what ought to be changed, shall be according to the common law, unless otherwise provided.' Acts 1805, p. 440, § 33.

Article 9 of the Constitution of 1898 of the state of Louisiana provides as follows:

'In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to a speedy public trial by an impartial jury: Provided, that cases in which the penalty is not necessarily imprisonment at hard labor or death shall be tried by the court without a jury, or by a jury less than twelve in number, as provided elsewhere in the Constitution: Provided further, that all trials shall take place in the parish in which the offense was committed, unless the venue be changed. The accused in every instance shall have the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him; he shall have the right to defend himself, to have the assistance of counsel, to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor.'

The evidence contained in the deposition was material. The objections to the reading thereof were overruled, and the counsel for plaintiffs in error duly excepted. The deposition was then read in evidence.

Messrs. Lionel Adams, Henry L. Lazarus, and Richard B. Otero for plaintiffs in error.

Messrs. Walter Guion and F. C. Zacharie for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice Peckham, after making the above statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court:

The only question for this court to determine is whether the admission of the deposition of Thebaud as evidence upon the trial of this case deprived the plaintiffs in error of due process of law, and therefore was a violation of the 14th Amendment upon the part of the state through its judicial department.

For many years the supreme court of Louisiana has held that upon such facts as were proved in this case it was proper to admit a deposition as evidence upon the trial of the accused; that in such circumstances he had been confronted with the witnesses within the meaning of the Constitution and laws of the state. Many cases were cited by the supreme court in the opinion in this case as authority for the proposition it laid down and, after having cited them, the court, in its opinion, continued:

'A reference to these various decisions will show that this court has repeatedly permitted the introduction in evidence of testimony of witnesses which had been taken down in writing on a preliminary examination, when the presence of the wit- nesses themselves at the trial could not be obtained. In the case before us the witnesses whose written testimony was so received were permanently absent from the state, the accused were present at the examination and cross-examined the witnesses. The jurisprudence of the state on the subject fully warranted the action of the district court in permitting the testimony to be introduced.'

Counsel for the plaintiffs in error in their brief used in this court concede that the law of Louisiana, as stated in the above extract from the opinion of the court in this case, 'is absolutely indisputable;' but they nevertheless urge that the decisions are founded in error and are in violation of the Constitution and mandatory statute (act of 1805; Rev. Stat. § 976, supra), requiring that, in the prosecution of crimes, among other things, the rules of evidence shall be in accordance with the English common law as it stood in 1805.

We are now asked to review the decisions of the state court as to what is the law of that state regarding this question of evidence, because, as asserted, the state has, ever since 1805, made the common law, as it existed at that time, the rule as to evidence on criminal trials, and it is contended that the common law did not permit this evidence under circumstances existing in this case, and the state court, in permitting the deposition to be read, not only violated the state law, but the 14th Amendment, by refusing to the plaintiffs in error due process of law.

Whether the state court erred in its construction of the state Constitution and statutes and the common law on the subject of reading depositions of witnesses is not a Federal question. We are bound by the construction which the state court gives to its own Constitution and statutes and to the law which may obtain in the state, under circumstances such as those existing herein. Among many of the cases to that effect, see Brown v. New Jersey, 175 U. S. 172, 44 L. ed. 119, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 77.

As to the Federal Constitution, it will be observed that there is no specific provision therein which makes it necessary in a state court that the defendant should be confronted with the witnesses against him in criminal trials. The 6th Amendment does not apply to proceedings in state courts. Spies v. Illinois, 123 U. S. 131, 31 L. ed. 80, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 21; Brown v. New Jersey, 175 U. S. 172-174, 44 L. ed. 119, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 77; Maxwell v. Dow, 176 U. S. 581, 586, 44 L. ed. 597, 599, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 448, 494. The only question, therefore, is, as we have stated, whether the reading of the deposition under the circumstances amounted to a violation by the state of the 14th Amendment, by depriving the plaintiffs in error of their liberty without due process of law.

At common law, the right existed to read a deposition upon the trial of the defendant, if such deposition had been taken when the defendant was present and when the defendant's counsel had had an opportunity to cross-examine, upon proof being made to the satisfaction of the court that the witness was, at the time of the trial, dead, insane, too ill ever to be expected to attend the trial, or kept away by the connivance of the defendant. This much is conceded by counsel for plaintiffs in error, but they deny that the common law extended the right to so read a deposition upon proof merely of nonresidence, permanent absence, and inability to procure the evidence of the witness upon the trial.

There is some contrariety among the authorities and text writers whether, under the common law, a deposition is admissible in such case. Assuming, however, that the state court erroneously held what the common law was on the subject, we must, in order to reverse this judgment, go further, and hold that a trial thus conducted and a deposition thus admitted did not furnish due process of law to the accused; in other words, that the refusal to exclude this deposition (an error regarding the admissibility of evidence) took away from plaintiffs in error a right of such an important and fundamental character as to deprive them of their liberty without due process of law.

The state of Louisiana had the right to alter the common law at any time, although it had theretofore adopted it with certain limitations. If, through its courts, it erred in deciding what the common law was, yet, if no fundamental and absolutely all-important right were thereby denied to an accused, he still had due process of law, and could not complain to this court regarding the error, assuming, of...

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