Thomas v. State of Arizona, No. 88

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtCLARK
Citation356 U.S. 390,2 L.Ed.2d 863,78 S.Ct. 885
PartiesArthur THOMAS, Petitioner, v. STATE OF ARIZONA
Docket NumberNo. 88
Decision Date19 May 1958

356 U.S. 390
78 S.Ct. 885
2 L.Ed.2d 863
Arthur THOMAS, Petitioner,

v.

STATE OF ARIZONA.

No. 88.
Argued March 4, 5, 1958.
Decided May 19, 1958.
Rehearing Denied June 30, 1958.

See 357 U.S. 944, 78 S.Ct. 1379.

Page 391

Mr. W. Edward Morgan, Tucson, Ariz., for the petitioner.

Mr. Wesley E. Polley, Phoenix, Ariz., and John G. Pidgeon, Bisbee, Ariz., for the respondent.

Mr. Justice CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner has been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by an Arizona court for the killing of one Janie Miscovich. He asks this Court to reverse his conviction on the ground that a confession received in evidence at his trial was coerced by fear of lynching, in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The victim, proprietor of a grocery store in Kansas Settlement, Arizona, was killed while tending her store on the evening of March 16, 1953. No one witnessed the

Page 392

crime, but strong circumstantial evidence indicated that it occurred between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., and that petitioner was responsible. He was arrested the next day under circumstances which lend credence to his assertion of a 'putative lynching.' The confession at issue, however, was not made until the day following the arrest, when he was taken before a Justice of the Peace for preliminary examination.

After an initial determination of voluntariness, the trial judge in the Superior Court of Cochise County, Arizona, submitted the issue of coercion to the jury under instructions to ignore the confession as evidence unless it was found entirely voluntary. A general verdict of guilty was returned by the jury and accepted by the trial court. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed, 78 Ariz. 52, 275 P.2d 408, and we denied certiorari.1 1956, 350 U.S. 950, 76 S.Ct. 326, 100 L.Ed. 828. Petitioner then made application for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. After reviewing the entire record, the District Court denied the writ without a hearing. The Court of Appeals

Page 393

affirmed, 235 F.2d 775, and we granted certiorari because of the seriousness of petitioner's allegations under the Due Process Clause. 352 U.S. 1024, 77 S.Ct. 593. An exhaustive review of the record, however, impels us to conclude that petitioner's confession was 'the expression of free choice,' Watts v. State of Indiana, 1949, 338 U.S. 49, 53, 69 S.Ct. 1347, 1350, 93 L.Ed. 1801, and not the product of fear, duress, or coercion.

The prosecution's use of a coerced confession first led to this Court's reversal of a state conviction in Brown v. State of Mississippi, 1936, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461, 80 L.Ed. 682. Our resolution of similar claims in subsequent cases makes clear that 'the question whether there has been a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by the introduction of an involuntary confession is one on which we must make an independent determination on the undisputed facts.' Malinski v. People of State of New York, 1945, 324 U.S. 401, 404, 65 S.Ct. 781, 783, 89 L.Ed. 1029. No encroachment of the traditional jury function results, for the issue of coercion, unlike the basic facts on which coercion is ascertained, involves the application of constitutional standards of fundamental fairness under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Brown v. Allen, 1953, 344 U.S. 443, 507, 73 S.Ct. 397, 446, 97 L.Ed. 469 (concurring opinion). In each instance our inquiry must weigh the 'circumstances of pressure against the power of resistance of the person confessing.' Fikes v. State of Alabama, 1957, 352 U.S. 191, 197, 77 S.Ct. 281, 285, 1 L.Ed.2d 246, quoting Stein v. People of State of New York, 1953, 346 U.S. 156, 185, 73 S.Ct. 1077, 1093, 97 L.Ed. 1522.

We turn then to the undisputed portions of the record to ascertain the facts against which petitioner's claim of coercion must be measured.

I.

Petitioner is an itinerant Negro laborer who lived with his common-law wife and four other Negroes, including one Ross Lee Cooper, a 17-year-old boy, in an old barracks provided by his employer about a half mile from the victim's store. Petitioner is a Navy veteran, 27 years

Page 394

old at the time of the murder, with a partial high school education. He had a criminal record of three different convictions, the most serious being a five-year larceny sentence, as well as two terms in the Navy brig for twice being absent without leave from his service post.

The body of Janie Miscovich was found Tuesday morning, March 17. A supplier noticed smoke coming from the store and summoned the help of three men constructing a building nearby, one of whom was petitioner. Petitioner did nothing to assist in putting out the fire, and left the scene before the victim's body was discovered, declaring that he 'never could stand the stench of burning flesh.' Although the body was severely beaten and burned, death was attributed to knife wounds in the heart, inflicted with a large knife found later in the store.

Preliminary investigation by local police disclosed that petitioner and Cooper were at the store together Monday afternoon and evening. After they returned to the barracks at approximately 8:30 p.m., petitioner left again by himself, returning around midnight. A trail of blood and footprints was traced from the store to within 50 yards of the barracks, where a strip of freshly harrowed ground made further tracking impossible. Blood spots were found in the kitchen of the barracks, and two bloody gloves were found hidden near the barracks. Both gloves were for the right hand and one of them was slit across the middle, ring and little fingers. Matching gloves were found in the store, where nine pairs plus two gloves for the left hand remained out of 12 pairs of gloves stocked by Janie Miscovich on Monday. The only pair of shoes petitioner owned, found under his bed in the barracks, exactly matched the 13 1/2-inch footprints trailed to the barracks. He had returned to the barracks after discovery of the fire and exchanged his shoes for a pair of old work boots he got 'out of the trash pile.'

Page 395

II.

A posse of 12 to 15 men headed by the Sheriff of Cochise County apprehended petitioner Tuesday at 3 p.m. lying under a pasture brush pile over 200 yards from the road and about 1 1/2 miles from Kansas Settlement. Three fingers of his right hand had been severely cut, matching the slits in the bloody glove found outside the barracks.

Petitioner was placed under arrest by the Sheriff and handcuffed by a state highway patrolman with the posse. When asked by the Sheriff 'why he had killed the woman,' petitioner asserted that he had not killed her, but that he could take the posse to the man who had done so, accusing Cooper of the murder. He also stated that he had cut his hand on a can. At this point a local rancher on horseback, who had no official connection with the Sheriff's posse, lassoed petitioner around the neck and jerked him a few steps in the general direction of both the Sheriff's car and the nearest trees, some 200 yards away. The Sheriff quickly intervened, removed the rope, and admonished, 'Stop that. We will have none of that * * *.' There was no talk of lynching among the other members of the posse.

The Sheriff then put petitioner and two other men in his car and drove a few miles south where petitioner directed him in search of Cooper. They found Cooper working in a field about half a mile off the road. The Sheriff borrowed a horse from a member of the posse—which had followed the Sheriff's car—and rode alone across the field to arrest Cooper. As he was bringing Cooper back to the car, a second rancher on horseback roped Cooper around the waist and led him along. When they reached the car, the Sheriff removed the rope. Petitioner, who had a full view of Cooper's apprehension,

Page 396

got out of the car and identified Cooper as the Miscovich killer.

Cooper was handcuffed and standing beside petitioner when the rancher responsible for Cooper's roping lassoed both men, catching them either by their shoulders or their necks and pulling them down to their knees. The Sheriff, looking 'kind of mad,' reacted 'immediately,' removing the rope and shouting, 'Hey, stop that. We will have no more of that.' Two or three other men joined the Sheriff in protesting the third roping incident. No trees at all could be seen from the location of these last two ropings, and no mention or threat of lynching was heard.

By 4:30 p.m. both prisoners had been placed in the Sheriff's car. They were taken directly to Willcox, the nearest town with a Justice Court, for preliminary examination in compliance with Arizona law.2 However, the judge, who also was a school bus driver, already had departed on the evening run. Before leaving Willcox, the Sheriff stopped briefly at the local mortuary, where the body of the murder victim was shown to both suspects. The prisoners then were taken to Bisbee, site of the county jail and courthouse. Arriving there after closing time of the nearest Justice Court, the Sheriff took them to nearby Warren for questioning by the County Attorney.

It was 6 p.m. when the Sheriff and his prisoners reached the home of the County Attorney, whom a prior injury had confined to a full body cast and stretcher. Petitioner and Cooper were placed together in a back bedroom under guard of an armed deputy, but each was

Page 397

separately quizzed for an hour in a front room. Petitioner was questioned solely by the County Attorney, though six other men, some of whom were armed, were present.3 Petitioner was barefoot; his shoes had been seized as evidence in the case, and there were no shoes at the jail large enough to fit him. He wore the same coveralls in which he was arrested. The County Attorney first identified each man in the room, assured petitioner that no threats and no promises would be made, 'explained...

To continue reading

Request your trial
92 practice notes
  • Miller v. Fenton, No. 83-5530
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 28 Septiembre 1984
    ...344 U.S. 443, 73 S.Ct. 397, 97 L.Ed. 469 (1953); Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 73 S.Ct. 1077, 97 L.Ed. 1522 (1953); Thomas v. Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 78 S.Ct. 885, 2 L.Ed.2d 863 (1958); Ashdown v. Utah, 357 U.S. 426, 78 S.Ct. 1354, 2 L.Ed.2d 1443 (1958); Crooker v. California, 357 U.S. 43......
  • Joe Sterling Et Al. on Habeas Corpus, In re, Cr. 10320
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • 22 Junio 1965
    ...g., Spano v. [People of State of] New York, 360 U.S. 315, 316, 79 S.Ct. 1202, 1203, 3 L.Ed.2d 1265 (1959); Thomas v. [State of] Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 393, 78 S.Ct. 885, 887, 2 L.Ed.2d 863 (1958); Pierre v. State of Louisiana, 306 U.S. 354, 358, 59 S.Ct. 536, 538-539, 83 L.Ed. 757 (1939). W......
  • Osborn v. United States Hoffa v. United States Lewis v. United States, Nos. 29
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • 12 Diciembre 1966
    ...88 L.Ed. 1192; Malinski v. People of State of New York, 324 U.S. 401, 404, 65 S.Ct. 781, 783, 89 L.Ed. 1029; Thomas v. State of Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 402 403, 78 S.Ct. 885, 891—892, 2 L.Ed.2d 863; Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534, 546, 81 S.Ct. 735, 742, 5 L.Ed.2d 760. 13. The recent regul......
  • Fay v. Noia, No. 84
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • 18 Marzo 1963
    ...v. Sigler, 355 U.S. 60, 78 S.Ct. 144, 2 L.Ed.2d 107; Massey v. Moore, 348 U.S. 105, 75 S.Ct. 145, 99 L.Ed. 135. Cf. Thomas v. Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 392, n. 1, 78 S.Ct. 885, 886, 2 L.Ed.2d 863. The same practice has sometimes been followed in the Federal District Courts. See Reitz, Federal ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
91 cases
  • Miller v. Fenton, No. 83-5530
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 28 Septiembre 1984
    ...344 U.S. 443, 73 S.Ct. 397, 97 L.Ed. 469 (1953); Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 73 S.Ct. 1077, 97 L.Ed. 1522 (1953); Thomas v. Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 78 S.Ct. 885, 2 L.Ed.2d 863 (1958); Ashdown v. Utah, 357 U.S. 426, 78 S.Ct. 1354, 2 L.Ed.2d 1443 (1958); Crooker v. California, 357 U.S. 43......
  • Joe Sterling Et Al. on Habeas Corpus, In re, Cr. 10320
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • 22 Junio 1965
    ...g., Spano v. [People of State of] New York, 360 U.S. 315, 316, 79 S.Ct. 1202, 1203, 3 L.Ed.2d 1265 (1959); Thomas v. [State of] Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 393, 78 S.Ct. 885, 887, 2 L.Ed.2d 863 (1958); Pierre v. State of Louisiana, 306 U.S. 354, 358, 59 S.Ct. 536, 538-539, 83 L.Ed. 757 (1939). W......
  • Osborn v. United States Hoffa v. United States Lewis v. United States, Nos. 29
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • 12 Diciembre 1966
    ...88 L.Ed. 1192; Malinski v. People of State of New York, 324 U.S. 401, 404, 65 S.Ct. 781, 783, 89 L.Ed. 1029; Thomas v. State of Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 402 403, 78 S.Ct. 885, 891—892, 2 L.Ed.2d 863; Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534, 546, 81 S.Ct. 735, 742, 5 L.Ed.2d 760. 13. The recent regul......
  • Fay v. Noia, No. 84
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • 18 Marzo 1963
    ...v. Sigler, 355 U.S. 60, 78 S.Ct. 144, 2 L.Ed.2d 107; Massey v. Moore, 348 U.S. 105, 75 S.Ct. 145, 99 L.Ed. 135. Cf. Thomas v. Arizona, 356 U.S. 390, 392, n. 1, 78 S.Ct. 885, 886, 2 L.Ed.2d 863. The same practice has sometimes been followed in the Federal District Courts. See Reitz, Federal ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Supreme Court Behavior and Civil Rights
    • United States
    • Political Research Quarterly Nbr. 13-2, June 1960
    • 1 Junio 1960
    ...v. City ofBaxley, 355 U.S. 313 (1958); Ciucci v. Illinois, 356 U.S. 571 (1958); Hoag v. New Jersey,356 U.S. 464 (1958); Thomas v. Arizona, 356 U.S. 390 (1958); Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U.S.560 (1958); Alcorta v. Texas, 355 U.S. 28 (1957); Moore v. Michigan, 355 U.S. 155 (1957); Yates v. U.S. ......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT