Stein v. People of State of New York Wissner v. People of State of New York Cooper v. People of State of New York

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation97 L.Ed. 1522,73 S.Ct. 1077,346 U.S. 156
Docket NumberNos. 391,392 and 393,s. 391
Decision Date15 June 1953

Messrs. John J. Duff, J. Bertram Wegman and Peter L. F. Sabbatino, New York City, for petitioners.

Messrs. John J. O'Brien, New York City, John C. Marbach, White Plains, N.Y., for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners were found guilty of felony murder1 by a jury in Westchester County, New York, and sentenced to death. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion.2 We granted certiorari, because of questions raised by use of two confessions.3

The trial lasted over seven weeks and the record runs to more than 3,000 pages. Evidence proffered and heard, subject to rejection or acceptance in the judgment of the jury, included two written confessions by petitioners Cooper and Stein, together with testimony as to their incidental oral confessions and admissions. Each written confession implicated all three defendants and all objected to introduction of each confession on the ground that it was coerced. Wissner further moved as to each that, if Cooper's and Stein's confessions were admitted, all reference to him be stricken from them. The trial court heard evidence in the presence of the jury as to the issue of coercion and left determination of the question to the jury. Petitioners claim that such use of these confessions creates a constitutional infirmity which requires this Court to set aside the conviction.

I. Facts About the Crime.

The main office of Reader's Digest is thirty-one miles from New York City, in the relatively rural area of northern Westchester County, near the town of Pleasantville. From this secluded headquarters a truck several times each day makes a run to and from town. On April 3, 1950, William Waterbury was driver of the 2:50 p.m. trip into Pleasantville. He picked up Andrew Petrini, a fellow employee, and various bags containing mail, about $5,000 in cash, and about $35,000 in checks, and started down the lonely country roads to town. Neither was armed. After a few hundred yards, Waterbury was cut off and halted by another truck that had been meandering slowly in front of him. He observed a man wearing a false nose and eyeglasses and with a revolver in his hand running toward him. After an unsuccessful attempt to open the door, the assailant fired one shot into Petrini's head. Waterbury was then ordered into the back of the truck where another man tied him up. His captors took the bag containing the money and checks and abandoned the truck on a side road with Waterbury bound and gagged therein. A few minutes later he was released by a passer-by and had Petrini hurried to the hospital where he died shortly from the effects of a .38 revolver bullet lodged in his skull.

Near the scene of the crime police found the abandoned truck used by the killers to block the way of Waterbury. It was learned to be the property of Spring Auto Rental Co., on New York's lower East Side and at the time of the murder to have been out on hire to a man who had rented the same truck on three prior occasions and who each time had identified himself by producing New York driver's license No. 1434549, issued to W. W. Comins, of 228 West 47th Street, New York City. The address turned out to be a hotel and the name fictitious. However, the police managed to establish that the license had been procured by one William Cooper.

It is more than a figure of speech to say that William Cooper had an ironclad alibi: at the time of this crime he was serving a sentence in a federal penitentiary. Suspicion attached to members of his family. Nearly two months ran on with no solution of the crime, however, until toward the end of May or the beginning of June when police learned that William's brother, petitioner Calman Cooper, had served a sentence in federal prison where he was a 'working partner' and chess-playing buddy of one Brassett, who was serving time for having rifled mails addressed to the Reader's Digest while working in Pleasantville. It appeared that during their prison association Brassett had told Calman Cooper of the opportunity awaiting at Reader's Digest for an enterprising and clever robber.

On June 5, 1950, police arranged for Arthur Jeppeson, who had rented the Spring truck to 'W. W. Comins,' to be on a street in New York City where they expected Calman Cooper to pass. Jeppeson testified on the trial that Cooper recognized him and said to him that 'this truck that he rented from me was in a killing upstate and he had nothing to do with it * * *.' Jeppeson testified that he then asked Cooper two questions: 'Why the hell didn't you report it to the police?' and '* * * why did he give me that license * * *?' Cooper's reply was stated to be, 'That is the license they gave him to give me.' Jeppeson further testified that Cooper had inquired if the officers had shown him any pictures and asked him not to identify Cooper to the police.

At the end of this conversation, on Jeppeson's signal, two policemen closed in and arrested Cooper. That night (2 a.m., June 6) petitioner Stein was arrested. On June 7, about 9 a.m., petitioner Wissner was arrested. The three petitioners were arraigned and charged with murder on the evening of June 8. A fourth suspect, Dorfman, was sought but remained at large until he voluntarily surrendered on June 19, 1950.

All four were indicted for murder. When the time came for trial, the case against Dorfamn, who turned state's evidence, was severed. A motion for separate trial by petitioner Wissner was denied, and trial proceeded against the three remaining defendants.

Other than two alibi witnesses offered by Wissner and a halfhearted attempt by Cooper to establish insanity, the defense consisted almost entirely of attempts to break down the prosecution's case. None of the defendants testified.

The confessions constituted only a part of the evidence submitted to the jury. We can learn the context in which the confessions were obtained by the police and received in evidence only from a summary of the whole testimony.

Waterbury, who was in the truck with the murdered Petrini, identified Wissner as the man who fired the shot and Stein as the man who tied him up.4 He testified that on the 8th of June the police brought him to Hawthorne Barracks and that, upon entering a room in which Stein was present, defendant Stein pointed out Waterbury as the driver of the truck.5 On cross-examination he recounted that he had picked Wissner out of a lineup at Hawthorne Barracks on June 8 and identified him as the killer.6

Jeppeson testified that the rental truck had been let to Cooper an April 3 and on three previous occasions, Cooper having in each case used an alias and a false license as before stated, and having given his occupation as 'bookseller.' He also testified as to his conversation with Cooper on the morning of the latter's arrest.

Dorfman, in substance, testified that he and Wissner were partners in an auto rental business on the lower East Side of New York City. Cooper and Stein had approached them about six weeks before April 3 with the suggestion that they collaborate on a robbery at the Reader's Digest. The truck used in the killing had been rented by Cooper on April 3 and on three previous occasions when the conspirators had driven to Pleasantville to 'case' the area and determine whether conditions were favorable for success in the crime. At these times, and one other, they also brought to Pleasantville an auto owned by the Dorfman-Wissner agency. On April 3, the four set out for Pleasantville with the truck, the car, and a tan valise containing three guns owned by Wissner. They left the car about a mile from the Reader's Digest and all got in the rented truck. The guns were distributed, Dorfman getting a black automatic and Wissner a nickel-plated revolver. The holdup proceeded in the manner described by Waterbury. Dorfman heard a short during the holdup, but did not see who fired it. On the way back, however, Wissner expressed regret at the necessity of shooting the guard. The defendants threw away their guns, left the Reader's Digest truck, with Waterbury tied up inside, on a side road and left the rental truck at the place where the car had been parked during the commission of the crime. They drove back toward New York in the car. When they got to the Bronx, they parked the car and went on by subway and taxicab to Dorfman's apartment in Brooklyn, where they divided up the proceeds and separated. Subsequently, Dorfman and one Homishak went up to the Bronx and picked up the car.

Under New York law, Dorfman's testimony, since he was an accomplice, required corroboration.7 It was afforded in the following ways: (1) Mrs. Dorfman testified that Cooper, Stein and Wissner had come to her apartment with her husband on the evening of April 3 and that they carried with them the tan valise which Dorfman had identified as that used on the robbery. It was established by police testimony that this valise had been found in June in Dorfman's apartment and when searched was found to contain a fragment of paper from an order form used by the Reader's Digest in April of 1950—an order form to which subscribers frequently attached cash in such manner that on removal of the cash a portion of the order form would come with it. (2) Police testified that Dorfman's automatic was found near the area where he said that he had thrown it away on April 3. (3) It was established that Petrini was killed by a bullet from a .38 revolver. (4) Homishak testified that he saw Dorfman in the company of the three petitioners on April 38 and that he accompanied Dorfman to the Bronx to pick up the car that night. (5) An employee of the Reader's Digest at Pleasantville testified that...

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