Spencer v. State of Texas Bell v. State of Texas Reed v. Beto 8212 70

Citation87 S.Ct. 648,385 U.S. 554,17 L.Ed.2d 606
Decision Date23 January 1967
Docket NumberNos. 68,s. 68
PartiesLeon SPENCER, Appellant, v. STATE OF TEXAS. Robert A. BELL, Jr., Petitioner, v. STATE OF TEXAS. William Everett REED, Petitioner, v. George J. BETO, Director, Texas Department of Corrections. —70
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

See 386 U.S. 369, 87 S.Ct. 1015, 1016.

No. 68:

Michael D. Matheny, Tyler, Tex., for appellant.

Leon B. Douglas, Austin, Tex., for appellee.

No. 69:

Tom R. Scott, Midland, Tex., for petitioner.

Hawthorne Phillips, Austin, Tex., for respondent.

No. 70:

Emmett Colvin, Jr., Dallas, Tex., for petitioner.

Howard Fender, Austin, Tex., for respondent.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Texas, reflecting widely established policies in the criminal law of this country, has long had on its books so-called recidivist or habitual-criminal statutes. Their effect is to enhance the punishment of those found guilty of crime who are also shown to have been convicted of other crimes in the past. The three cases at hand challenge the procedures employed by Texas in the enforcement of such statutes.1

Until recently, and at the time of the convictions before us, the essence of those procedures was that, through allegations in the indictment and the introduction of proof respecting a defendant's past convictions, the jury trying the pending criminal charge was fully informed of such previous derelictions, but was also charged by the court that such matters were not to be taken into account in assessing the defendan's guilt or innocence under the current indictment.2 The facts in the cases now here are these. In Spencer (No. 68), the petitioner3 was indicted for murder, with malice, of his common-law wife. The indictment alleged that the defendant had previously been convicted of murder with malice, a factor which if proved would entitle the jury to sentence the defendant to death or to prison for not less than life under Texas Pen.Code Art. 64, n. 1, supra, whereas if the prior conviction was not proved the jury could fix the penalty at death or a prison term of not less than two years, see Texas Pen.Code Art. 1257. Spencer made timely objections to the reading to the jury of that portion of the indictment, and objected as well to the introduction of evidence to show his prior conviction. The jury was charged that if it found that Spencer had maliciously killed the victim, and that he had previously been convicted of murder with malice, the jury was to 'assess his punishment at death or confinement in the penitentiary for life.' The jury was in- structed as well that it should not consider the prior conviction as any evidence of the defendant's guilt on the charge on which he was being tried. Spencer was found guilty and sentenced to death.

In Bell (No. 69), the petitioner was indicted for robbery, and the indictment alleged that he had been previously convicted of bank robbery in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Bell moved to quash the indictment on the ground, similar to that in Spencer, that the allegation and reading to the jury of a prior offense was prejudicial and would deprive him of a fair trial. Similar objections were made to the offer of documentary evidence to prove the prior conviction. The court's charge to the jury stated that the prior conviction should not be considered in passing upon the issue of guilt or innocence on the primary charge. The sentencing procedure in this non-capital case was somewhat different from that in Spencer. The jury was instructed that if it found the defendant guilty only of the present robbery charge, it could fix his sentence at not less than five years nor more than life. See Texas Pen. Code Art. 1408. But if it found that Bell had also been previously convicted as alleged in the indictment, it should bring in a verdict of guilty of robbery by assault and a further finding that the allegations 'charging a final conviction for the offense of bank robbery are true.' The jury so found, and the judge fixed punishment, set by law for such a prior offender, at life imprisonment in the penitentiary. See Texas Pen. Code Art. 62, note 1, supra.

The Reed case (No. 70),4 involving a third-offender prosecution for burglary, see Texas Pen.Code Art. 63, n. 1, supra, entailed the same practice as followed in Bell.

The common and sole constitutional claim made in these cases is that Texas' use of prior convictions in the current criminal trial of each petitioner was so egregiously unfair upon the issue of guilt or innocence as to offend the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment that no State shall 'deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law * * *.' We took these cases for review, 382 U.S. 1022, 1023, 1025, 86 S.Ct. 649, 15 L.Ed.2d 537, 538, 539, because the courts of appeals have divided on the issue.5 For reasons now to follow we affirm the judgments below.

The road to decision, it seems to us, is clearly indicated both by what the petitioners in these cases do not conted and by the course of the authorities in closely related fields. No claim is made here that recidivist statutes are themselves unconstitutional, nor could there be under our cases. Such statutes and other enhanced-sentence laws, and procedures designed to implement their underlying policies, have been enacted in all the States,6 and by the Federal Government as well. See e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 2114; Fed.Rule Crim.Proc 32(c)(2); D.C.Code § 22—104 (1961). Such statutes, though not in the precise procedural circumstances here involved, have been sustained in this Court on several occasions against contentions that they violate constitutional strictures dealing with double jeopardy, ex post facto laws, cruel and unusual punishment, due process, equal protection, and privileges and immunities. Moore v. State of Missouri, 159 U.S. 673, 16 S.Ct. 179, 40 L.Ed. 301; McDonald v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 180 U.S. 311, 21 S.Ct. 389, 45 L.Ed. 542; Graham v. State of West Virginia, 224 U.S. 616, 32 S.Ct. 583, 56 L.Ed. 917; Gryger v. Burke, 334 U.S. 728, 68 S.Ct. 1256, 92 L.Ed. 1683; Oyler v. Boles, 368 U.S. 448, 82 S.Ct. 501, 7 L.Ed.2d 446.

Nor is it contended that it is unconstitutional for the jury to assess the punishment to be meted out to a defendant in a capital or other criminal case, or to make findings as to whether there was or was not a prior conviction even though enhanced punishment is left to be imposed by the judge. The States have always been given wide leeway in dividing responsibility between judge and jury in criminal cases. Hallinger v. Davis, 146 U.S. 314, 13 S.Ct. 105, 36 L.Ed. 986; Maxwell v. Dow, 176 U.S. 581, 20 S.Ct. 448, 44 L.Ed. 597; cf. Chandler v. Fretag, 348 U.S. 3, 75 S.Ct. 1, 99 L.Ed. 4; Giaccio v. State of Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399, 405, n. 8, 86 S.Ct. 518, 522, 15 L.Ed.2d 447.

Petitioners do not even appear to be arguing that the Constitution is infringed if a jury is told of a defendant's prior crimes. The rules concerning evidence of prior offenses are complex, and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but they can be summarized broadly. Because such evidence is generally recognized to have potentiality for prejudice, it is usually excluded except when it is particularly probative in showing such things as intent. Nye & Nissen v. United States, 336 U.S. 613, 69 S.Ct. 766, 93 L.Ed. 919, Ellisor v. State, 162 Tex.Cr.R. 117, 282 S.W.2d 393; an element in the crime, Doyle v. State, 59 Tex.Cr.R. 39, 126 S.W. 1131; identity, Chavira v. State, 167 Tex.Cr.R. 197, 319 S.W.2d 115; malice, Moss v. State, Tex.Cr.App., 364 S.W.2d 389; motive, Moses v. State, 168 Tex Cr.R. 409, 328 S.W.2d 885; a system of criminal activity, Haley v. State, 87 Tex.Cr.R. 519, 223 S.W. 202; or when the defendant has raised the issue of his character, Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469, 69 S.Ct. 213, 93 L.Ed. 168, Perkins v. State, 152 Tex.Cr.R. 321, 213 S.W.2d 681; or when the defendant has testified and the State seeks to impeach his credibility, Giacone v. State, 124 Tex.Cr.R. 141, 62 S.W.2d 986. 7

Under Texas law the prior convictions of the defendants in the three cases before the Court today might have been admissible for any one or more of these universally accepted reasons. In all these situations, as under the recidivist statutes, the jury learns of prior crimes committed by the defendant, but the conceded possibility of prejudice is believed to be outweighed by the validity of the State's purpose in permitting introduction of the evidence. The defendants' interests are protected by limiting instructions, see Giacone v. State, supra, and by the discretion residing with the trial judge to limit or forbid the admission of particularly prejudicial evidence even though admissible under an accepted rule of evidence. See Spears v. State, 153 Tex.Cr.R 14, 216 S.W.2d 812; 1 Wigmore, Evidence § 29a (3d ed. 1940); Uniform Rule of Evidence 45; Model Code of Evidence, Rule 303.

This general survey sufficiently indicates that the law of evidence, which has been chiefly developed by the States, has evolved a set of rules designed to reconcile the possibility that this type of information will have some prejudicial effect with the admitted usefulness it has as a factor to be considered by the jury for any one of a large number of valid purposes. The evidence itself is usually, and in recidivist cases almost always, of a documentary kind, and in the cases before us there is no claim that its presentation was in any way inflammatory. Compare Marshall v. United States, 360 U.S. 310, 79 S.Ct. 1171, 3 L.Ed.2d 1250. To say the United States Constitution is infringed simply because this type of evidence may be prejudicial and limiting instructions inadequate to vitiate prejudicial effects, would make inroads into this entire complex code of state criminal evidentiary law, and would threaten other large...

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