Stewart v. United States

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation6 L.Ed.2d 84,366 U.S. 1,81 S.Ct. 941
Docket NumberNo. 143,143
PartiesWillie Lee STEWART, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
Decision Date24 April 1961

Mr. Edward L. Carey, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Carl W. Belcher, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in unequivocal terms that no person may 'be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.' To protect this right Congress has declared that the failure of a defendant to testify in his own defense 'shall not create any presumption against him.'1 Ordinarily, the effectuation of this protection is a relatively simple matter—if the defendant chooses not to take the stand, no comment or argument about his failure to testify is permitted.2 But where for any reason it becomes necessary to try a particular charge more than one time, a more complicated problem may be presented. For a defendant may choose to remain silent at his first trial and then decide to take the stand at a subsequent trial. When this occurs, questions arise as to the propriety of comment or argument in the second trial based upon the defendant's failure to take the stand at his previous trial. This case turns upon such a question.

Petitioner has been tried three times in the District Court for the District of Columbia upon an indictment charging that he had committed first-degree murder under a felony-murder statute.3 In all three trials, petitioner's chief defense has been insanity but, on each occasion, the jury has rejected this defense and returned a verdict of guilty upon which the District of Columbia's mandatory death sentence has been imposed.4 After the first two trials, in which petitioner did not testify, the convictions and death sentences were set aside on the basis of trial errors that the Court of Appeals found had prevented a proper consideration of the case by the jury.5 At the third trial, in an apparent effort to bolster the contention of insanity, petitioner was placed upon the stand and asked a number of questions by defense counsel—a maneuver obviously made for the purpose of giving the jury an opportunity directly to observe the functioning of petitioner's mental processes in the hope that such an exhibition would persuade them that his memory and mental comprehension were defective. Petitioner's responses to these questions were aptly described by the court below as 'gibberish without meaning.'6 Upon cross-examination, the prosecutor attempted without noticeable success to demonstrate that these irrational answers were given by petitioner in furtherance of his plan to feign a mental weakness that did not exist. To this end, the prosecutor asked petitioner a number of questions about statements petitioner had allegedly made subsequent to his arrest, apparently in the hope that one of these questions would surprise petitioner and provoke a sensible response. When petitioner continued to talk in the same manner that he had used upon direct examination, the prosecutor concluded his cross-examination with the following remarks in the form of questions: 'Willie, you were tried on two other occasions.' And, 'This is the first time you have gone on the stand, isn't it, Willie?'7

The defense moved immediately for a mistrial on the ground that it was highly prejudicial for the prosecutor to inform the jury of the defendant's failure to take the stand in his previous trials. The prosecutor defended his actions on the ground that this 'is a fact that the Jury is entitled to know.' The trial judge agreed with the prosecutor, denied the motion for a mistrial, and the trial proceeded, culminating in the third verdict of guilty and death sentence. On appeal, the case was heard by all nine members of the Court of Appeals sitting en banc and was affirmed by a 5—4 vote8—the majority concluding that the issue was controlled by the decision of this Court in Raffel v. United States,9 and the minority concluding that the issue was controlled by our decision in Grunewald v. United States.10 We granted certiorari to consider whether it was error for the trial court to deny the motion for a mistrial under the circumstances.11

In this Court, the Government concedes that the question put to the defendant about his prior failures to testify cannot be justified under Raffel, Grunewald, or any other of this Court's prior decisions. This concession, which we accept as proper, rests upon the Government's recognition of the fact that in no case has this Court intimated that there is such a basic inconsistency between silence at one trial and taking the stand at a subsequent trial that the fact of prior silence can be used to impeach any testimony which a defendant elects to give at a later trial. The Raffel case, relied upon by the majority below, involved a situation in which Raffel had sat silent at his first trial in the face of testimony by a government agent that Raffel had previously made admissions pointing to his guilt. On a second trial, Raffel took the stand and denied the truth of this same testimony offered by the same witness. Under these circumstances, this Court held that Raffel's silence at the first trial could be shown in order to discredit his testimony at the second trial on the theory that the silence itself constituted an admission as to the truth of the agent's testimony. The result was that Raffel's silence at the first trial was held properly admitted to impeach the specific testimony he offered at the second trial. Here, on the other hand, the defendant's entire 'testimony' comprised nothing more than 'gibberish without meaning' with the result that there was no specific testimony to impeach. Any attempt to impeach this defendant as a witness could therefore have related only to his demeanor on the stand, and, indeed, the majority below expressly rested its conclusion upon the view that the prosecution had the right under Raffel to test the genuineness of this sort of 'demeanor-evidence' by questions as to why it was not offered at previous trials.12 But if Raffel could properly be read as standing for this proposition, such questions would be permissible in every instance, for whenever a witness takes the stand, he necessarily puts the genuineness of his demeanor into issue.13 The Government quite properly concedes that this cannot be the law since it would conflict with the precise holding of this Court in the Grunewald case.14

Despite this concession, however, the Government persists in the contention that petitioner's conviction should be upheld, arguing that the error committed was harmless and could not have affected the jury's verdict. This argument is rested upon three grounds: first, that the jury may not even have heard the improper question; secondly, that even if the jury did hear the question, it may not have inferred that petitioner in fact did not testify at his previous trial; and, finally, that even if the jury did infer that petitioner did not testify previously, no inference adverse to petitioner would have been drawn from this fact. The first two of these grounds can be quickly disposed of. We can think of no justification for ignoring the part of a record showing error on a mere conjecture that the jury might not have heard the testimony that part of the record represents. Nor do we believe it reasonable to argue that the jury trying this case would not have inferred that this defendant had failed to testify in his prior trials when the prosecutor asked, 'This is the first time you have gone on the stand, isn't it, Willie?' Indeed, the recognition that such an inference will in all likelihood be drawn from leading questions of this kind lies at the root of the long-established rule that such questions may not properly be put unless the inference, if drawn, would be factually true. 15 Thus, the Government's argument that the error was harmless must stand or fall upon the third ground it urges—that the jury's awareness of petitioner's failure to take the stand at his previous trials would not have prejudiced the consideration of his case. The disposition of this contention requires the statement of a few more of the relevant facts of the case.

In connection with the defense of insanity, petitioner had introduced evidence of both mental disease and mental defect, as those terms are applied in the relevant law of the District of Columbia.16 On the mental disease issue, the testimony was that petitioner was suffering from manic depressive psychosis, a disease which the record shows tends to fluctuate considerably in its manifestations from time to time. On the mental defect issue, the defense introduced evidence that petitioner had an intelligence level in the moronic class. The case went to the jury on both of these points, the jury being directed to acquit if it found the homicide to have been the product either of mental disease or mental defect.17 Petitioner's 'testimony' thus raised at least two different issues in the minds of the jury: first, whether petitioner was simply feigning this testimony; and, secondly, whether, if not, petitioner's condition at the time of his third trial fairly represented his condition at the time of the act charged in the indictment.18

We think it apparent that the jury's awareness of petitioner's failure to testify at his first two trials could have affected its deliberations on either or both of these issues. Thus, the jury might well have thought it likely that petitioner elected to feign this 'testimony' out of desperation brought on by his failure to gain acquittal without it in the two previous trials. Similarly, even if the jury believed petitioner's 'testimony' was genuine, it might have thought that petitioner's condition was caused by a mental disease and concluded that it is unlikely that a disease that had manifested itself only one out of three times for exhibition at...

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  • People v. Clary
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • 25 Junio 2013
    ...[833 N.W.2d 315 We are equally unpersuaded by the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the instant case is more like Stewart v. United States, 366 U.S. 1, 81 S.Ct. 941, 6 L.Ed.2d 84 (1961). Unlike in Raffel and the instant case, in Stewart the defendant did not contradict the testimony of a wi......
  • People v. Modesto, Cr. 7877
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • 11 Febrero 1965
    ...... the last and most damaging of these statements was inadmissible under the decisions of the United States Supreme Court in Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201, 84 S.Ct. 1199, 12 L.Ed.2d 246, and ... (Grunewald v. United States, 353 U.S. 391, 418-424, 77 S.Ct. 963, 1 L.Ed. 2d 931; see Stewart v. United States, 366 U.S. 1, 6, 81 S.Ct. 941, 6 L.Ed.2d 84.) .         In determining the ......
  • Booth v. State, 151
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • 1 Septiembre 1984
    ...of the defendant at a second retrial that the defendant had not testified at the prior trials. See Stewart v. United States, 366 U.S. 1, 81 S.Ct. 941, 6 L.Ed.2d 84 (1961). Nor is a procedure constitutionally permissible which requires the defendant to testify as the first witness in the def......
  • Tucker v. Francis, 83-8466
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • 16 Enero 1984
    ...United States v. Hale, 422 U.S. 171, 180-81, 95 S.Ct. 2133, 2138-39, 45 L.Ed.2d 99, 104 (1975); Stewart v. United States, 366 U.S. 1, 5, 81 S.Ct. 941, 944, 6 L.Ed.2d 84, 88 (1961); Grunewald v. United States, 353 U.S. 391, 424, 77 S.Ct. 963, 984, 1 L.Ed.2d 931, 954 (1957). Doyle was decided......
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1 books & journal articles
  • The Mentally Ill in Criminal Cases: the Constitutional Issue
    • United States
    • Political Research Quarterly Nbr. 16-3, September 1963
    • 1 Septiembre 1963
    ...among the federal circuits have adopted the Durham Test 7 An explanation of the Durham Rule can be found in Stewart v. United States, 366 U.S. 1 (1960). 8 4 Blackstone Commentaries, 24, 3 Coke Institutes 6; see also Frankfurter’s dissenting opinion in Solesbee v. United States, 339 U.S. 9, ......

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