Woodbury v. Commonwealth

Decision Date11 September 1936
Citation3 N.E.2d 779,295 Mass. 316
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Report from Supreme Judicial Court, Suffolk County.

George N. Woodbury, Aldino Felicani, and Frank Piesco were found guilty of contempt of court, and they bring error.

Judgment affirmed.

E. Spiegel and A. F. Reel, both of Boston, for plaintiff in error.

J. J Ronan, Asst. Atty. Gen., for the Commonwealth.

RUGG Chief Justice.

These are petitions for writs of error to reverse judgments whereby fines were imposed upon the petitioners in proceedings for contempt of court based on the circulation by them of printed circulars alleged to have a tendency to obstruct the administration of justice in a pending criminal case. The assignments of error in each petition were these: ‘ 1. The said letter or circular was not intended to injure or interfere with the prosecution or defense of said trial. 2. The said letter in no way mentions the Court. 3. The said letter does not reflect upon the dignity of the Court; was not intended to hinder or interfere with the due administration of justice, and did not in fact hinder or interfere with the due administration of justice. 4. That the acts of the defendant as alleged in the affidavit or petition of the District Attorney do not constitute contempt of court in fact or in law, and that the complaint does not charge a crime.’ Return was made of the record of the Superior Court in each case. The Commonwealth pleaded in nulloest erratum as to each petition. No evidence was offered at the hearing before the single justice, but questions of law were argued on the record. The cases were reported without decision for determination by this court. By assent of parties the record as printed was much abbreviated. The proceedings in contempt in each case as shown by the docket entries were commenced in the Superior Court on June 26 1935, by an affidavit signed by the district attorney, wherein the court was advised that in the preparation and trial of an indictment returned by the grand jury for Plymouth County in June, 1935, against Ralph Piesco, it came to the attention of the district attorney (1) that circulars (one being annexed marked ‘ A’ ) printed by Felicani were being distributed in Brockton by Frank Piesco immediately prior to the trial of that case, and (2) that a further circular or letter (one being annexed marked ‘ B’ ) was circulated by mail and by other means by Woodbury, who has admitted responsibility for printing and distributing the same. It was stated in the affidavit that ‘ all of the aforesaid acts tend to obstruct and degrade the administration of justice in this Court and that they were brought ‘ to the attention of this Court to take such actions as the facts herein disclosed’ may require. A certificate of oath to the affidavit bore date are ‘ Offense: Contempt. Place: Brockof June 27, 1935. Further docket entries ton.’ Notice issued to each of these three persons, being the present petitioners, returnable at Brockton on June 27, 1935, to appear and show cause why he should not be adjudged in contempt of court. All three appeared and were represented by counsel. Woodbury and Felicani admitted and Frank Piesco denied the allegations in the affidavit. Each was adjudged in contempt of court and a fine was imposed.

The heading on the first page of circular ‘ A’ was ‘ Defend Ralph Piesco.’ Under this was the picture of a man, followed by the words in conspicuous type ‘ Smash the gangster frame-up against him.’ The body of the circular narrated internal friction and disorder in a labor union, in which Frank Piesco was assaulted and later Ralph Piesco, a supporter of the opposition group, found himself attacked * * * by Tonoli. This was the climax to the Murphy-Collins-Goodwin gangster methods of intimidating workers who had the courage to fight corruption and in the interest of the rank and file.’ The circumstances attending the arrest of Ralph Piesco were described with the comment, ‘ It is very plain the Murphy clique is going to try to railroad Piesco. * * * Spread these facts to every worker you know.’ The concluding words were these, ‘ Support the Defense Committee in the fight to free the framed-up Piesco. A victory for Piesco means a victory for trade union democracy in the Brotherhood. Piesco Defense Committee, P. O. Box 831, Brockton, Mass.’ Scattered through the text were these headlines in large type: ‘ Down with Gangster Tactics,’ ‘ Here are the facts,’ ‘ Stool-pigeon attempts frame-up.’ The heading of the other circular or letter ‘ B’ was Ralph Piesco Defense Committee. P. O. Box No. 831. Brockton, Mass.’ It was addressed Brothers and Sisters.’ It referred to the assaults upon Frank and Ralph Piesco and stated that the latter had been ‘ framed up on the charge of ‘ assault with intent to kill’ after he himself was attacked and stabbed by one of the Murphy-Goodwin henchmen. * * * The clique in Brockton is working overtime to railroad him to jail, so as to break up the amalgamation forces. This is not a criminal case. It is a labor case. * * * We must put all our forces behind the defense of Brother Piesco. 'Contributions were sought for such defense. This was signed by Woodbury as secretary of the defense committee.

The record does not disclose the evidence presented at the trial of the contempt proceedings in the Superior Court. No findings of fact were made by the trial judge. Therefore it must be presumed that there was sufficient evidence to support the finding of contempt. That general adjudication imports a finding of all incidental and inducing facts necessary to the conclusion reached. It must be accepted as true unless tainted by some error of law apparent on the record. Blankenburg v. Commonwealth, 272 Mass. 25, 31, 172 N.E. 209, 73 A.L.R. 808. The assignments of error therefore are the basis of the contentions of the plaintiffs in error, and must be examined to ascertain whether wrong has been done them.

There is no merit in the first assignment of error to the effect that the printed matter was not intended to interfere with the trial. No other intent than the intent to do the act which constitutes the contempt is required to subject one to punishment for contempt. It is the nature of the act and not the accompanying intent which is the determining factor in establishing contempt.‘ As regards the question, whether a contempt has or has not been committed, it does not depend on the intention of the party, but upon the act he has done.’ Taney, C. J., in Wartman v. Wartman, Fed.Cas.No.17,210, Taney, 362, 370; Cartwright's Case, 114 Mass. 230, 239; Telegram Newspaper Co. v. Commonwealth, 172 Mass. 294, 300, 52 N.E. 445,44 L.R.A. 159, 70 Am.St.Rep. 280; Globe Newspaper Co. v. Commonwealth, 188 Mass. 449, 453, 74 N.E. 682,3 Ann.Cas. 761; Merrimack River Savings Bank v. Clay Center, 219 U.S. 527, 536, 31 S.Ct. 295, 55 L.Ed. 320, Ann.Cas.1912A, 513; State v. Howell, 80 Conn. 668, 671, 672, 69 A. 1057,125 Am.St.Rep. 141,13 Ann.Cas. 501; Sturoc's Case, 48 N.H. 428, 432,97 Am.Dec. 626.

The second assignment of error to the effect that there was no mention of the court in either of the circulars is not of consequence. The inference is plain from the summary of the circulars already recited that they relate to the trial in court of a serious criminal offense. In a community like Plymouth County, it might be found to be common knowledge that the offense described in the circulars would be tried in the Superior Court. The assault there described followed by an indictment would be likely to be known by the general public. The implication is that the trial was either in progress or to occur in the near future. The circulars are of a character to impair or destroy the due and orderly procedure of a trial in court. The receipt of such a circular by a prospective or actual juror would naturally be prejudicial to a fair trial. Discussion of the contents of the circulars by the general public would tend to create bias and prejudice on the part of some jurors. The tone of the circulars is that the prosecution is oppressive and not founded on truth. They denounce the proceeding in court in opprobrious and abusive terms. They are manifestly designed in part to persuade those who read them or adopt their views that the prosecution ought not to prevail. It may be contempt of court to disparage the cause of one or the other of the parties to a case to be tried. Public dissemination of the ideas set forth in the circulars had a tendency to bring odium upon the testimony to be produced by the Commonwealth and to inspire distrust of its witnesses. No further discussion is needed to demonstrate the liability of such circulars to engender hostility incompatible with a judicial trial where no facts ought to be considered and weighed except those introduced in evidence. Sturoc's Case, 48 N.H. 428, 432,97 Am.Dec. 626. This is the tendency of the circulars regardless of the court in which the case may be tried.

The third assignment of error to the effect that the circular or letter does not reflect upon the dignity of the court and did not hinder the administration of justice cannot be sustained. The general promulgation among workers in various shoe factories in Brockton of appeals in temper like those here in issue might well be found to cast reproach upon the capacity of the court to do justice according to law. A heated discussion of the internal dissensions of a labor union and the vituperative epithets applied to the opposing faction with reference to action by a court established by law are inappropriate for the neighborhood of a criminal trial. Such conduct may be found to reflect upon the competency...

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