Vallee v. Delle Rose 8212 905

Decision Date19 March 1973
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
Citation35 L.Ed.2d 637,410 U.S. 690,93 S.Ct. 1203
PartiesJ. Edwin LaVALLEE, Superintendent of Clinton Correctional Facility v. Pasquale DELLE ROSE. —905
CourtU.S. Supreme Court


The State of New York petitions for certiorari to review the adverse determination of the Court of Appeals in this federal habeas corpus proceeding directing the release* of respondent Pasquale Delle Rose. Delle Rose was serving a life sentence for the premeditated murder of his wife in 1963. At his trial, occurring before Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, 84 S.Ct. 1774, 12 L.Ed.2d 908 (1964), respondent was convicted by a jury which chose to credit has two confessions over his protestation of accidental involvement, and which presumably found them to be voluntary. On appeal, the New York appellate court directed the trial court to hold a special hearing to determine the voluntariness of his confessions in accordance with People v. Huntley, 15 N.Y.2d 72, 255 N.Y.S.2d 838, 204 N.E.2d 179 (1965), the State's procedural response to this Court's decision in Jackson v. Denno, supra.

On remand to the trial court, the State rested on the trial record, and the respondent, in addition to relying on the record, testified in his own behalf. After extensively summarizing the trial evidence and respondent's explanations of certain of his confession statements, the court concluded:

'On all evidence, both at the trial and at the hearing, and after considering the totality of the circumstances, including the omission to warn defendant of his right to counsel and his right against self-incrimination, I find and decide that the respective confessions to the police and district attorney were, in all respects, voluntary and legally admissible in evidence at the trial. . . .'

On this basis, respondent's conviction was affirmed by the New York appellate courts, 33 A.D.2d 657, 27 N.Y.2d 882, 317 N.Y.S.2d 358, 265 N.E.2d 770 (1970), and this Court denied certiorari, 402 U.S. 913, 91 S.Ct. 1395, 28 L.Ed.2d 656 (1971).

Respondent then petitioned the United States District Court for writ of habeas corpus alleging his confessions were involuntary. That court held that since the state trial judge had 'neglected to say how far he credited—and to what extent, if any, he discounted or rejected' respondent's testimony and the evidence before him, there was no 'adequate' determination within the mean- ing of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which would have entitled the state court's findings to a presumption of correctness and placed on respondent the burden of establishing by convincing evidence that the state court's conclusion was erroneous. The District Court therefore held its own hearing, found both confessions involuntary, and ordered respondent discharged from custody unless retried, 342 F.Supp. 567. A divided panel of the Second Circuit affirmed, 468 F.2d 1288.

The Court of Appeals held that the state court's opinion did not meet the requisites of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) which provides in relevant part:

'(A) determination after a hearing on the merits of a factual issue, made by a State court of competent jurisdiction . . . evidenced by a written finding, written opinion, or other reliable and adequate written indicia, shall be presumed to be correct, unless the applicant shall establish or it shall otherwise appear, . . .—

'(1) that the merits of the factual dispute were not resolved in the State court hearing . . ..'

Although it is true that the state trial court did not specifically articulate its credibility findings, it can scarcely be doubted from its written opinion that respondent's factual contentions were resolved against him.

Respondent's wife was killed by a blast from a sawed-off shotgun device which had been set to shoot through the back of their front car seat. His confessions indicated that because of extreme jealousy, he rigged the device to go off when his wife pulled the car seat forward. For some reason it failed initially; so when he was seated with her in the car, he operated it by hand. At trial, he claimed his confessions were false and testified that he was seated in the car with his wife and he noticed a lump on the floor behind the front seat.

When he reached down to investigate, it shot her.

At trial, in support of his theory of relentless questioning and police coercion, respondent presented evidence to the effect that, at the time of his confessions,

'he had had a back injury, and therefore was in pain; that he was taken to the garage and asked to put his hand in the back seat where the blood of his wife was; that the police threatened to beat him up if he did not admit he killed her; that he was compelled to say by the police that he had killed his wife but that what he meant was that he had done so inadvertently, by placing his hand over the lump; and that, after telling the officer he wanted to see his wife, he did not remember what happened thereafter until 9:00 o'clock in the morning.'

In addition, as his 'Huntley' hearing, he testified that the officers told him they would beat him up if he did not talk to them; that one of the detectives told him to put his hands in the front seat hole where his wife's blood was and when he did not, the detective took his hands and put them there himself; and that he did not remember anything past the time when he asked to see his wife at the morgue, including the giving of the second statement. He also attempted to explain the reasons for his giving such detailed and factually accurate confession statements.

The trial court's summary of the State's evidence tended to show that although respondent had been taken to the station house about 5 p.m. on the day of the murder, he was not even a suspect as late as 9 p.m., and he was only giving information. He was taken to the morgue at his own request, a factor which triggered the first confession. Further, he had been allowed to sit with his family, was given coffee by his mother-in-law and police, and he admitted that his treatment by the police was good during the time of the questioning. There was also testimony that he had been offered food, but as he admitted, he was not hungry. Again at the 'Huntley' hearing, he acknowledged that the police had treated him 'nice.' It was 'on this evidence' that the state trial court made its finding and conclusion that the confessions were voluntary.

The Court of Appeals stated that it could not tell whether the state courts 'credited Delle Rose's story of the circumstances surrounding his confessions but still held these to have been voluntary, a conclusion to which we could not agree or based their holding of voluntariness on a partial or complete rejection of his testimony, in which event the district judge would have been bound to deny the petition.' 468 F.2d 1288, 1290. In Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 314—315, 315, 83 S.Ct. 745, 757—758, 9 L.Ed.2d 770 (1963), the precursor of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), this Court set forth general standards governing the holding of hearings on federal habeas petitions, stating:

'(T)he possibility of legal error may be eliminated in many situations if the fact finder has articulated the constitutional standards which he has applied. Furthermore, the coequal responsibilities of state and federal judges in the administration of federal constitutional law are such that he think the district judge may, in the ordinary case in which there has been no articulation, properly assume that the state trier of fact applied correct standards of federal law to the facts, in the absence of evidence . . . that there is reason to suspect that an incorrect standard was in fact applied. Thus, if third-degree methods of obtaining a confession are alleged and the state court refused to exclude the confession from evidence, the district judge may assume that the state trier found the facts against the petitioner, the law being, of course, that theird-degree methods necessarily produce a coerced confession.'

Here, not only is there no evidence that the state trier utilized the wrong standard, but there is every indication he applied the correct standards. His determination was made on the 'totality of the circumstances' and, in this pre-Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478, 84 S.Ct. 1758, 12 L.Ed.2d 977 (1964), pre-Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), situation, the court also considered the facts that respondent was not warned of his rights to the assistance of counsel and against self-incrimination before confessing. And we quite agree with the District Court's statement that it could not go along with the state trial court's conclusion of voluntariness if it 'were to find the facts to have been as petitioner's (Delle Rose's) testimony portrayed them.' See, e.g., Spano v. New York, 360 U.S. 315, 79 S.Ct. 1202, 3 L.Ed.2d 1265 (1959); Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 69 S.Ct. 1347, 93 L.Ed. 1801 (1949). Under these circumstances, we think the District Court could have been reasonably certain that the state court would have granted relief if it had believed respondent's allegations. See Townsend v. Sain, supara, 372 U.S., at 315, 83 S.Ct., at 758.

We, therefore, hold that the opinion of the state trial court met the requirements of 28 U.S.C § 2254 (d)(1), and that the courts below incorrectly determined it did not. The burden was thus on respondent to establish in the District Court by convincing evidence that the state court's determination was erroneous. The motion of the respondent for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for certiorari are granted. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and this cause is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Reversed and remanded.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, Mr. Justice BRENNAN, and Mr. Justice STEWART concur, dissenting.

Although I am in complete disagreement with this Court's per curiam decision herein, I see no reason to set this case...

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