Webb v. Texas

Citation93 S.Ct. 351,409 U.S. 95,34 L.Ed.2d 330
Decision Date04 December 1972
Docket NumberNo. 71-6647,71-6647
PartiesAlfred David WEBB v. State of TEXAS
CourtUnited States Supreme Court


The petitioner was convicted of burglary in the Criminal District Court of Dallas County, Texas, and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for 12 years. He appealed, raising several claims of error, among them an allegation that the trial court had violated his constitutional rights by 'threatening and harassing' the sole witness for his defense, so that the witness refused to testify. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas affirmed his conviction, 480 S.W.2d 398 (1972). We grant the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari and reverse the petitioner's conviction.

The record shows that, after the prosecution had rested its case the jury was temporarily excused. During this recess, the petitioner called his only witness, Leslie Max Mills, who had a prior criminal record and was then serving a prison sentence. At this point, the trial judge, on his own initiative, undertook to admonish the witness as follows:

'Now you have been called down as a witness in this case by the Defendant. It is the Court's duty to admonish you that you don't have to testify, that anything you say can and will be used against you.

If you take the witness stand and lie under oath, the Court will personally see that your case goes to the grand jury and you will be indicted for perjury and the liklihood (sic) is that you would get convicted of perjury and that it would be stacked onto what you have already got, so that is the matter you have got to make up your mind on. If you get on the witness stand and lie, it is probably going to mean several years and at least more time that you are going to have to serve. It will also be held against you in the penitentiary when you're up for parole and the Court wants you to thoroughly understand the chances you're taking by getting on that witness stand under oath. You may tell the truth and if you do, that is all right, but if you lie you can get into real trouble. The court wants you to know that. You don't owe anybody anything to testify and it must be done freely and voluntarily and with the thorough understanding that you know the hazard you are taking.'

The petitioner's counsel objected to these comments, on the ground that the judge was exerting on the mind of the witness such duress that the witness could not freely and voluntarily decide whether or not to testify in the petitioner's behalf, and was thereby depriving the petitioner of his defense by coercing the only defense witness into refusing to testify. Counsel pointed out that none of the witnesses for the State had been so admonished. When the petitioner's counsel then indicated that he was nonetheless going to ask the witness to take the stand, the judge interrupted: 'Counsel, you can state the facts, nobody is going to dispute it. Let him decline to testify.' The witness then refused to testify for any purpose and was excused by the court. The petitioner's subsequent motion for a mistrial was overruled.

On appeal, the petitioner argued that the judge's conduct indicated a bias against the petitioner and deprived him of due process of law by driving his sole witness off the witness stand. The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected this contention, stating that, while it did not condone the manner of the admonition, the petitioner had made no objection until the admonition was completed, and there was no showing that the witness had been intimidated by the admonition or had refused to testify because of it.

We cannot agree. The suggestion that the petitioner or his counsel should have interrupted the judge in the middle of his remarks to object is, on this record, not a basis to ground a waiver of the petitioner's rights. The fact that Mills was willing to come to court to testify in the petitioner's behalf, refusing to do so only after the judge's lengthy and intimidating warning, strongly suggests that the judge's comments were the cause of Mills' refusal to testify.

The trial judge gratuitously singled out this one witness for a lengthy admonition on the dangers of perjury. But the judge did not stop at warning the witness of his right to refuse to testify and of the necessity to tell the truth.* Instead, the judge implied that he expected Mills to lie, and went on to assure him that...

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    • United States
    • New York Supreme Court Appellate Division
    • December 27, 1983
    ...585 P.2d 367 [Okl.]; People v. Wilson, 24 Ill.2d 425, 182 N.E.2d 203; Demps v. Florida, 416 So.2d 808 Page 171 [Fla.] ). Webb v. Texas, 409 U.S. 95, 93 S.Ct. 351, 34 L.Ed.2d 330 is notable for there the majority held that reversal was required because the trial court's threatening remarks t......
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    • May 26, 2015
    ...interferes in the defendant's presentation of his defense, and thereby pressures a witness into remaining silent. See Webb v. Texas, 409 U.S. 95, 93 S. Ct. 351, 34 L. Ed. 2d 330 (1972). In assessing whether the court has acted unreasonably, the reviewing court looks to the factual circumsta......
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