Stroble v. State of California

Decision Date07 April 1952
Docket NumberNo. 373,373
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 343 U.S. 952, 72 S.Ct. 1039.

[Syllabus from pages 181-182 intentionally omitted] Messrs. John D. Gray, A. L. Wirin, Los Angeles, Cal., for petitioner.

Mr. Adolph Alexander, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner has been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. He asks this Court to reverse his conviction as wanting in that due process of law guaranteed against state encroachment by the Fourteenth Amendment. Petitioner claims (1) that his conviction was based in part on a coerced confession; (2) that a fair trial was impossible because of inflammatory newspaper reports inspired by the District Attorney; (3) that he was in effect deprived of counsel in the course of his sanity hearing; (4) that there was an unwarranted delay in his arraignment; and (5) that the prosecuting officers unjustifiably refused to permit an attorney to consult petitioner shortly after petitioner's arrest. Petitioner urges that each of the first three circumstances is independently a deprivation of due process; and that, in any event, the combination of all five circumstances operated to deprive him of a fair trial.

The murder of which petitioner has been convicted occurred on Monday, November 14, 1949; the victim was a girl, aged 6. Petitioner was arrested around noon on Thursday, November 17, 1949. He was arraigned in the Los Angeles Municipal Court at 10 o'clock the following morning, and the City Public Defender was appointed to represent him. A preliminary hearing was held on Monday, November 21, and petitioner was bound over for trial in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. On November 25, petitioner was arraigned in the Superior Court and the County Public Defender was appointed as his counsel. From that point until the conclusion of his trial, petitioner was vigorously defended by two deputies of the County Public Defender's office. On December 2, 1949, petitioner pleaded both 'not guilty' and 'not guilty by reason of insanity.' The case came on for trial on January 3, 1950. The issue of guilt was tried to a jury, which, on January 19, returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder, without recommendation; under California law, this automatically fixed the penalty at death. On January 20, 1950, petitioner waived jury trial on he issue of insanity, and the court found that petitioner was sane at the time of committing the offense. On January 27, 1950, on petitioner's motion, a private attorney was substituted as petitioner's counsel. On February 6, 1950, the trial court, after a hearing, denied petitioner's motion for a new trial, motion in arrest of judgment, and motion to set aside the waiver of jury trial on the issue of insanity.

On appeal the Supreme Court of California unanimously affirmed the conviction. People v. Stroble, 36 Cal.2d 615, 226 P.2d 330. We granted certiorari because of the seriousness of petitioner's allegations under the Due Process Clause. 342 U.S. 811, 72 S.Ct. 57.

The facts leading to petitioner's arrest may be summarized as follows:

In the early morning of November 15, 1949, the victim's body was found behind the incinerator in the back yard of the home of petitioner's daughter and son-in-law. It was wrapped in a blanket and covered with boxes. A necktie was wound twice around the child's neck. An axe, knife, and hammer were found in the vicinity of the body. An autopsy revealed that the immediate cause of death was asphyxia due to strangulation. It also revealed numerous lacerations on the top and sides of the head, six skull fractures, a deep laceration in the back of the neck, abrasions and discolorations on the child's back, irritation of the external genitalia, and three puncture wounds in the chest.

Suspicion immediately focused on petitioner, who had been visiting his daughter and son-in-law until the day before, when he had disppeared. Some six months before petitioner had jumped bail on a charge of molesting a small girl and had never since been apprehended. At approximately 11:50 a.m. on November 17, as petitioner entered the bar of a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, a civilian recognized him as the man whom the police were seeking in connection with the murder. The civilian summoned a police officer, Carlson, who thereupon arrested petitioner.

From this point on there are some conflicts in the testimony, as noted below. Carlson, accompanied by the civilian, took petitioner to the park foreman's office in nearby Pershing Square, where Carlson called headquarters to report his arrest of petitioner and to request that a police car be sent. Then Carlson, in the presence of the civilian and the park foreman, proceeded to search petitioner. Carlson had petitioner stand facing the wall with his hands raised against it and his feet away from it. While being searched in this position, petitioner pulled his feet closer to the wall and then Carlson, with the side of his shoe, kicked petitioner's shoes at the toes in order to push petitioner's feet back into position. The civilian testified that 'possibly' Carlson's foot slipped and hit petitioner's shin 'once or twice.' Carlson testified that at no time did he 'strike' petitioner or 'inflict any kind of physical injury on him.'1 No marks were found on petitioner when he was examined by a physician a few hours later. It also appears that after searching petitioner, Carlson took out his blackjack, held it under petitioner's nose, and said either, Do you know what this is for?' or 'Have you seen this?' Petitioner makes no claim that Carlson used the blackjack on him. While waiting for the police car to arrive the civilian asked petitioner whether he was guilty of the murder, and petitioner 'mumbled something under his breath that sounded like 'I guess I am." Thereupon, according to the civilian the park foreman slapped petitioner with his open hand and knocked off petitioner's glasses.

Without undue delay the police car arrived and petitioner was driven to the District Attorney's office in the Hall of Justice Building. While en route one of the police officers in the car began a conversation with petitioner by asking him where he had been. Petitioner replied, 'Well, after that terrible thing happened, I went down to the beach, down to Ocean Park. I was going to do away with myself.' The officer said, 'What do you mean by that terrible thing?' to which petitioner replied, 'When the little girl got killed.' The officer then interposed, 'Do you mean when you killed the little girl?' and petitioner answered, 'Yes. I was going down to the beach. I was going to jump in the ocean and commit suicide but I decided that I would have to pay on the other side so I might as well come back and pay on this side.' The officer testified that he did not promise petitioner any reward or extend to him any hope of immunity, and that he did not use force or threats of any kind. The officer's entire testimony regarding this conversation is uncontradicted, and, insofar as it contains a confession by petitioner, no objection was made at the trial on the ground that such confession was involuntary.

Petitioner did object at the trial, however, to the introduction in evidence of a confession which he made after his arrival in the District Attorney's office. Petitioner was brought to the District Attorney's office at approximately 1 p.m., and an assistant district attorney began questioning petitioner in the presence of some nineteen persons, attache_s of the District Attorney and the police department. The entire proceeding was recorded on a recording machine which had been set in operation before petitioner's arrival. Petitioner stated that on the afternoon of November 14, his victim came to the home of petitioner's daughter, where petitioner was visiting; he took his victim into the bedroom and made advances upon her; when she began to scream, he became frightened, got hold of her throat, and squeezed it until she became quiet; she started to squirm again, so he took a necktie from the dresser and tied it around her neck; when she continued to move, he took her off the bed, wrapped her in a blanket, and hit her on the temple with a hammer which he had obtained from the kitchen drawer; he then dragged her across the back yard to the incinerator, returned to the kitchen to get an ice pick, and pushed the pick into her three times in an effort to reach her heart; next he got an axe from the garage and hit her on the head and backbone; finally he got a knife from the kitchen and stabbed her in the back of the neck, covered her body with boxes, and left for Ocean Park, a beach resort within the city of Los Angeles, where he remained for the three nights before his apprehension.

Towards the end of the recording petitioner stated that the officers had not threatened or abused him in any way, either in the park foreman's office or the District Attorney's office. The recording disclosed no mistreatment at the time of the making of the confession.

The questioning of petitioner in the District Attorney's office lasted approximately two hours. About 45 minutes after petitioner had begun his confession, an attorney, Mr. Gray, called at the waiting room of the District Attorney's office and asked for the assistants handling the case. Upon being advised that they were busy he then asked for the District Attorney. Upon being told that the District Attorney was also in conference and could not be disturbed, Mr. Gray asked to see petitioner. It is uncontradicted that at that point Mr. Gray stated to a police department inspector who was present in the waiting room that he 'just wanted to hear from (petitioner's) lips whether or not' petitioner had committed the murder, 'so that (he) could report back' to petitioner's son-in- -law....

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