Walker v. Johnston

Citation312 U.S. 275,61 S.Ct. 574,85 L.Ed. 830
Decision Date10 February 1941
Docket NumberNo. 173,173
PartiesWALKER v. JOHNSTON, Warden
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr., of Boston, Mass., for petitioner.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 275-277 intentionally omitted] Mr. Herbert Wechsler, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 275-277 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents important questions of practice touching the issue of the writ of habeas corpus. We accordingly granted certiorari in forma pauperis, 311 U.S. 635, 61 S.Ct. 68, 85 L.Ed. -, and appointed counsel for the petitioner to insure adequate presentation at our bar.

The petitioner, who is confined in the Federal prison at Alcatraz, California, under sentence and commitment of the District Court for Northern Texas upon a plea of guilty to an indictment charging armed robbery of a national bank, sought habeas corpus in the District Court for Northern California. His petition recites that he was indicted in the District Court for Northern Texas March 9, 1936; that the cause came on for trial April 28, 1936, and he pleaded guilty; that he was sentenced May 1, 1936, to twelve years' imprisonment, was committed to the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, May 4, 1936, and is now confined at Alcatraz. The petition alleges that at trial the petitioner was without the assistance of counsel; that he did not waive his right to counsel; that the court did not inquire whether he desired counsel or instruct him that he was entitled to counsel; that he did not know he was so entitled if he had no money to pay an attorney; and that the judgment of conviction is void, as he was deprived of the assistance of counsel for his defence in violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. The prayer is that the writ issue and that he be released from custody.

The court issued an order to show cause addressed to the warden of the penitentiary. That officer filed a return showing that he held the prisoner under a commitment issued by the Texas District Court and a transfer from Leavenworth to Alcatraz ordered by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons of the Department of Justice. Attached to the return were certified copies of the indictment, minute entries, sentence, and commitment, and docket entries in the cause, transfer order, and record of commitment. Also attached were affidavits of the United States Attorney, the Assistant United States Attorney, and the Probation Officer (formerly a deputy marshal) of the Northern District of Texas. These affiants, or some of them, deposed to the following effect: The petitioner was jointly indicted with one White, who pleaded not guilty, was tried, convicted, and sentenced the petitioner had no counsel as he entered a plea of guilty. At the time of the commission of the offense for which the petitioner was indicted he was an escaped convict from the State Penitentiary of New Mexico and was brought thence for trial. On the day of the trial, the marshal brought him to the Federal building where the District Attorney talked to him; asked him whether he was guilty and he stated he was; asked him if he was going to plead guilty and he stated he was; asked him whether he had a lawyer and he stated he did not want an attorney as he thought an attorney would be of no value to him. The District Attorney explained to the petitioner that he thought the judge would give him greater consideration, if he was guilty, on his entering a plea of guilty. The petitioner was told his interviewers believed that if he would tell the judge the truth and testify in the case as to his accomplices that fact would be considered by the judge in passing sentence. The petitioner stated he would enter a plea of guilty but would not testify. He refused to say whether the co-defendant White was with him at the time of the robbery and said that he would prefer not to make a statement with respect to other facts in the case. One affiant stated his belief that petitioner told the judge in open court that he had no counsel and did not desire any as he was guilty and intended to plead guilty. Three witnesses identified the petitioner as being one of the men who entered the bank and there was no question of his guilt. After sentence, petitioner expressed his satisfaction at the length of sentence imposed. Some time later a letter was received from the petitioner thanking the District Attorney for what he had done for him.

The petitioner answered, denying that he had stated to one or more of the affiants, or in the presence of one or more of them, that he was guilty or that he intended to plead guilty; that he did not want an attorney or felt that an attorney would be of no value to him. He alleged that he first learned he was to be prosecuted for the offense in question about April 26, 1936, when a deputy marshal took him from New Mexico to Texas; that, prior to trial, the District Attorney, in the presence of the deputy marshal, asked him to plead guilty and he replied that he intended to plead not guilty, whereupon the District Attorney exhibited to him pictures of the scene of the alleged crime and, by means of them and otherwise, sought to persuade him that he would be proved guilty; that the petitioner refused to talk further with the District Attorney at that time; that the District Attorney again visited him and the petitioner then requested that the trial be continued so that he could communicate with his relatives and try to obtain money to enable him to hire an attorney for his defense, but that the District Attorney advised him this was not possible and told him to plead guilty, warning him that he would be sentenced to twice as great a term if he did not so plead; that the petitioner had no relatives or friends near the scene of the trial other than his co- defendant White. He alleged that he requested the District Attorney to be permitted to talk to White or White's attorney, but the request was refused. In view of the District Attorney's warning, and in fear of a heavy prison term, he told the District Attorney he would plead guilty. The answer alleges that petitioner has no information and belief sufficient to enable him to answer the statement concerning his letter claimed to have been sent from the penitentiary and, therefore, denies the fact; denies that the petitioner stated to the judge that he did not desire counsel appointed for him or that he was pleading guilty because he was guilty; alleges that at no time was petitioner informed, did he know or believe that he was entitled to the assistance of counsel for his defense, and that at no time did anyone ask him if he desired the assistance of counsel nor did anyone offer to procure such assistance for him; avers that he was without money to pay for counsel and believed he could not obtain the assistance of counsel without money to pay a lawyer; asserts that he attended school to the fifth grade and had had no further schooling or education, was entirely unversed in the law and unable and unqualified to represent or act for himself in a criminal proceeding; that at no time was he asked to waive his right to the assistance of counsel nor did he by word or act state or indicate that he waived, or intended to waive, that right; denies his guilt and denies that the evidence produced at trial showed his guilt.

Upon these pleadings the District Judge, after hearing argument, discharged the rule to show cause and dismissed the petition for the writ. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.1

The petitioner contended in the Circuit Court of Appeals that the statute required the District Court to issue the writ and, upon his production in court, to hold a hearing on the issues made by the pleadings. The court found it unnecessary to pass on the contention, since it held 'another manner of proceeding' (that here followed by the District Court) was permissible under our decisions. It approved the summary disposition of the case on the pleadings and affidavits submitted, as the petitioner had been afforded an opportunity to submit by affidavit whatever he deemed material. It thought the District Court was justified in disbelieving the petitioner's allegations and, on the basis of such disbelief, discharging the rule and denying the petition.

The case presents these questions: (1) Was the District Court, on the filing of the petition, bound forthwith to issue the writ and have the petitioner produced in answer to it? (2) If the procedure followed by the District Court was permissible, and the pleadings raised issues of fact, should those issues have been resolved by testimony rather than upon affidavits? (3) Did the pleadings raise any material issue of fact?

First. The statutes of the United States declare that the supreme court and the district courts shall have power to issue writs of habeas corpus;2 that application for the writ shall be made to the court or justice or judge authorized to issue the same by complaint in writing, under oath, signed by the petitioner, setting forth the facts concerning his detention, in whose custody he is and by virtue of what claim or authority, if known.3 The court or justice or judge 'shall forthwith award a writ of habeas corpus, unless it appears from the petition itself that the party is not entitled thereto.' The writ shall be directed to the person in whose custody the petitioner is detained.4 The person to whom the writ is directed must certify to the court or judge the true cause of detention and, at the same time he makes his return, bring the body of the party before the judge who granted the writ.5 When the writ is returned a day is to be set for the hearing, not exceeding five days thereafter, unless the petitioner requests a longer time.6 The petitioner may deny the facts set forth in the return or may allege any other material facts, under oath.7 The court or judge 'shall...

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