State v. Schabert

Decision Date23 June 1944
Docket NumberNo. 33714.,33714.
Citation15 N.W.2d 585,218 Minn. 1
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Appeal from District Court, Dakota County; W. A. Schultz, Judge.

Regina Schabert was convicted of the crime of murder in the first degree and appealed from an order denying her motion for a new trial.

Reversed and new trial granted.

Arthur E. Arntson, of Red Wing, and L. J. Kilbride, of Hastings, for appellant.

J. A. A. Burnquist, Atty. Gen., Ralph A. Stone, Asst. Atty. Gen., and Vance B. Grannis, Acting Co. Atty., of South St. Paul, for respondent.

LORING, Chief Justice.

This is an appeal from an order denying the defendant's motion for a new trial. We have before us only defendant's testimony, certain exhibits, the county attorney's argument, and the court's charge certified by the court. We treat it as a bill of exceptions.

Regina Schabert was arrested in the early morning of March 5, 1942, and lodged in the county jail at Hastings, Minnesota. She was being held under suspicion of having killed her husband, Frank Schabert, who was found dead in their house with a gunshot wound in his side which had evidently penetrated to his heart. The circumstances leading up to his death, as related by defendant, may be briefly stated as follows: On the morning of March 4, 1942, Regina arose about 5 o'clock and prepared breakfast and a lunch for her husband to take with him to work. Shortly thereafter Frank, who was employed at the Federal Cartridge Company plant at New Brighton, left for work, but returned in a few minutes after having had a controversy with the men who rode to work in the same car with him. He told his wife that he wanted $5 "to go and get drunk." This she refused, and they then took their seven-year-old son to school, after which they returned home and she gave him $2. She did not see him again until about 8 o'clock in the evening when he returned home. He refused to eat supper, though she had it prepared for him. After putting the boy to bed they both went downtown and visited some saloons, where Frank drank whiskey and Regina a few glasses of beer. Late in the evening they drove to Newport, Frank driving the car. He was at that time somewhat intoxicated and drove from side to side of the road. At Newport they entered a tavern and had more drinks. Regina obtained the keys to the car and on their return from Newport to Hastings refused to let Frank drive on account of his condition. Frank had frequently beaten her, and on their way to Hastings he engaged in beating her around the head and arms. He also insisted on pulling the hand throttle of the car so as to speed it up, and this finally resulted in the car hitting a guard post at the side of the road. On arriving at their home in Hastings, they went into the house, and Frank again started to beat her. She got away from him and took her sleeping boy out of bed and ran to a neighbor's house to call the police, who came and put Frank in their squad car. After he got in the car he evidently tried to persuade the police that he would behave himself if they would leave him at home. They asked her if they should let him stay. She said that "it was up to them." They left him. She and her husband then re-entered the house, she to rest on the bed, he to sit in a chair in the dark combination living and dining room. Not long thereafter, having turned on the lights, he began scolding her for having called the police and also for having collided with the guard post on the road home. He called her vile names and threatened to kill her. He picked up a chair with which to accomplish his purpose, but she succeeded in preventing his use of the chair as a weapon, whereupon she asserts that he grabbed for the shotgun, which was standing in a corner of the room. She also grabbed for it, and in the struggle for the gun it was discharged, causing the wound from which Frank died. She asserts that she did not intend to kill him; that if it was she who discharged the gun, it was done accidentally; and that, at worst, it was discharged in self-defense in her endeavor to prevent her husband from using the weapon upon her.

Regina had been found to be a feebleminded person, and the record indicates that she had the mentality of a child of eight years and ten months. It seems that their child was born out of wedlock and that Frank married her a year or so after the child's birth.

After the wound had been inflicted upon Frank, Regina testified that she straightened him out on the floor, then took the car, and went to her mother's place and told her what had happened. Her mother advised her to return to town and give herself up to the police. This she did, and in response to her telephone call the police came to the house and took her to jail. This was in the early morning of March 5. She was not arraigned until the 7th. She testified that she asked to have her parents, her priest, her lawyer, and her doctor, but her requests were not complied with until she had given what is hereinafter referred to as her second confession, to the effect that she had deliberately shot her husband while he was lying on the bed. This confession was not obtained until March 6, after she had been extensively and repeatedly questioned in regard to the shooting. A previous confession had been obtained on the 5th, but it may be inferred that it was not satisfactory to the sheriff's office, because it was never offered in evidence. The prosecuting officers persisted until the second confession was obtained. It is challenged on the ground that it was not a voluntary confession, but was obtained by psychological pressure. There is no claim that she was tortured physically, except that she was kept awake by the persistent questioning, and felt sick and extremely tired when she finally signed the document. In the state of the record, the alleged error in admitting this confession becomes one of the principal problems presented on this appeal.

1. The Supreme Court of the United States has in a number of recent decisions discussed the admissibility of confessions obtained by prosecuting officers while the accused was under pressure of persistent questioning and was detained incommunicado. Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 62 S.Ct. 280, 86 L.Ed. 166; McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332, 63 S.Ct. 608, 87 L.Ed. 819; Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 64 S.Ct. 921; United States v. Mitchell, 64 S.Ct. 896; Lyons v. Oklahoma, 64 S.Ct. 1208, filed June 5, 1944. The federal courts do not receive evidence illegally obtained if timely motion is made for its suppression, but in reviewing the decisions of state courts where confessions are challenged as involuntary, the Supreme Court of the United States applies the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. In Lisenba v. California, supra, the court speaking through Mr. Justice Roberts, said, 314 U.S. 236, 62 S.Ct. 290, 86 L.Ed. 180: "As applied to a criminal trial, denial of due process is the failure to observe that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice. In order to declare a denial of it we must find that the absence of that fairness fatally infected the trial; the acts complained of must be of such quality as necessarily prevent a fair trial. Such unfairness exists when a coerced confession is used as a means of obtaining a verdict of guilt."

In Lyons v. Oklahoma supra, the 14th Amendment was said to be "* * * a protection against criminal trials in state courts conducted in such a manner as amounts to a disregard of `that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice,' and in a way that `necessarily prevent(s) a fair trial.'" The court also said: "The voluntary or involuntary character of a confession is determined by a conclusion as to whether the accused, at the time he confesses, is in possession of `mental freedom' to confess to or deny a suspected participation in a crime."

From these decisions, we deduce the rule that unfairness in violation of due process exists when a confession is obtained by means of pressure exerted upon the accused under such circumstances that it affects the testimonial trustworthiness of the confession. Lisenba v. California, supra. See, also, the discussion in 3 Wigmore, Evidence (3 Ed.) § 822. While in this state we have no statute such as the Federal statute, or such as most states have, requiring that the arrested accused be immediately taken before a judge or magistrate, where, of course, he would be entitled to counsel (except Minn.St.1941, § 629.14 [Mason St.1940 Supp. § 10547-24], apparently enacted in favor of persons arrested in furtherance of extradition), we believe that fundamental fairness to the accused requires that he should with reasonable promptness be taken before a magistrate in order to prevent the application of methods approaching what is commonly called the "third degree." "Fundamental fairness" prohibits the secret inquisition in order to obtain evidence. Certainly, delay in arraignment is a circumstance to be considered with other facts tending to show that the accused was subjected to pressure to obtain a confession. In Ashcraft v. Tennessee, supra, 64 S.Ct. 925, the United States Supreme Court said: "In reaching our conclusion as to the validity of Ashcraft's confession we do not resolve any of the disputed questions of fact relating to the details of what transpired within the confession chamber of the jail or whether Ashcraft actually did confess. Such disputes, we may say, are an inescapable consequence of secret inquisitorial practices. And always evidence concerning the inner details of secret inquisitions is weighted against an accused, particularly where, as here, he is charged with a brutal crime, or where, as in many other cases, his supposed offense bears relation to an unpopular economic, political, or religious cause."

In the case at bar, Hastings...

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