Brown v. Mississippi (1936)

Supreme Court of the United States.

Ed Brown v. Mississippi 

Decided Feb. 17, 1936 – 297 U.S. 278


Mr. Chief Justice HUGHES delivered the opinion of the [unanimous] Court.

The question in this case is whether convictions, which rest solely upon confessions shown to have been extorted by officers of the state by brutality and violence, are consistent with the due process of law required by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Petitioners were indicted for the murder of one Raymond Stewart, whose death occurred on March 30, 1934. They were indicted on April 4, 1934, and were then arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Counsel were appointed by the court to defend them. Trial was begun the next morning and was concluded on the following day, when they were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Aside from the confessions, there was no evidence sufficient to warrant the submission of the case to the jury. After a preliminary inquiry, testimony as to the confessions was received over the objection of defendants’ counsel. Defendants then testified that the confessions were false and had been procured by physical torture. 

[D]efendants filed in the Supreme Court a “suggestion of error” explicitly challenging the proceedings of the trial, in the use of the confessions and with respect to the alleged denial of representation by counsel, as violating the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The state court entertained the suggestion of error, considered the federal question, and decided it against defendants’ contentions.

The grounds of the decision were (1) that immunity from self-incrimination is not essential to due process of law; and (2) that the failure of the trial court to exclude the confessions after the introduction of evidence showing their incompetency, in the absence of a request for such exclusion, did not deprive the defendants of life or liberty without due process of law; and that even if the trial court had erroneously overruled a motion to exclude the confessions, the ruling would have been mere error reversible on appeal, but not a violation of constitution right.

The state court said: “After the state closed its case on the merits, the appellants, for the first time, introduced evidence from which it appears that the confessions were not made voluntarily but were coerced.” There is no dispute as to the facts upon this point. It is sufficient to say that in pertinent respects the transcript reads more like pages torn from some medieval account than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government.

[The Court then quoted portions of the state court dissent:]

“[T]he solemn farce of hearing the free and voluntary confessions was gone through with, and these two sheriffs and one other person then present were the three witnesses used in court to establish the so-called confessions, which were received by the court and admitted in evidence over the objections of the defendants duly entered of record as each of the said three witnesses delivered their alleged testimony. There was thus enough before the court when these confessions were first offered to make known to the court that they were not, beyond all reasonable doubt, free and voluntary; and the failure of the court then to exclude the confessions is sufficient to reverse the judgment, under every rule of procedure that has heretofore been prescribed, and hence it was not necessary subsequently to renew the objections by motion or otherwise.”

“The defendants were brought to the courthouse … and the so-called trial was opened, and was concluded on the next day, … and resulted in a pretended conviction with death sentences. The evidence upon which the conviction was obtained was the so-called confessions. Without this evidence, a peremptory instruction to find for the defendants would have been inescapable.”

[T]he trial [] is a mere pretense where the state authorities have contrived a conviction resting solely upon confessions obtained by violence. The due process clause requires “that state action, whether through one agency or another, shall be consistent with the fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions.” It would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process.

In the instant case, the trial court was fully advised by the undisputed evidence of the way in which the confessions had been procured. The trial court knew that there was no other evidence upon which conviction and sentence could be based. Yet it proceeded to permit conviction and to pronounce sentence. The conviction and sentence were void for want of the essential elements of due process, and the proceeding thus vitiated could be challenged in any appropriate manner. It was challenged before the Supreme Court of the State by the express invocation of the Fourteenth Amendment. That court entertained the challenge, considered the federal question thus presented, but declined to enforce petitioners’ constitutional right. The court thus denied a federal right fully established and specially set up and claimed, and the judgment must be reversed.

* * *

The Court has stated that “when a confession challenged as involuntary is sought to be used against a criminal defendant at his trial … the prosecution must prove at least by a preponderance of the evidence that the confession was voluntary.” Lego v. Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 489 (1972); see also Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 555 (1897) (recalling with approval English precedent to the effect “that it was the duty of the prosecutor to satisfy the trial judge that the confession had not been obtained by improper means, and that, where it was impossible to collect from the proof whether such was the case or not, the confession ought not to be received”).

Unfortunately, while the facts in Brown v. Mississippi are horrific, it was not the only case in which the Court found it necessary to reverse a conviction based upon an involuntary confession. Indeed, in reciting the facts of the next case, the Court referred to “the usual pattern” of testimony concerning the treatment of a suspect.

Coercive interrogations were by no means limited to the American South. Further, to find that a confession was not voluntary, the Court does not require evidence of physical mistreatment of a suspect.  Continuous interrogation that does not permit the suspect to eat or sleep, or implied threats can also make a confession considered to be not voluntary.

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

For a case in which coercive conduct was alleged but the Court nonetheless affirmed a conviction, students should see Lisbena v. California, 314 U.S. 219 (1941). In a dissent joined by Justice Douglas, Justice Black wrote, “The testimony of the officers to whom the confession was given is enough, standing alone, to convince me that it could not have been free and voluntary.” In particular, the dissent noted that “an investigator, ‘slapped’ the defendant whose left ear was thereafter red and swollen” and that squads of questioners took turns interviewing the defendant, in a manner similar to other cases we have seen. The majority, however, deferred to state court findings “as concerns the petitioner’s claims of physical violence, threats or implied promises of leniency.” Despite referring to “the violations of law involved in the treatment of the petitioner,” the Court declined to find a Due Process violation. Instead, it called the case “close to the line” and held that the defendant “exhibited a self-possession, a coolness, and an acumen throughout his questioning, and at his trial, which negatives the view that he had so lost his freedom of action that the statements made were not his but were the result of the deprivation of his free choice to admit, to deny, or to refuse to answer.”

These days, a promise of lenient treatment does not automatically render the ensuing confession involuntary. Instead, it is a factor to consider as part of the “totality-of-the-circumstances” test the Court applies to Due Process claims.

In part because the Court found it difficult to regulate interrogations effectively using only the Due Process Clauses, the Justices were inspired to create the Miranda Rule, which imposes additional requirements on police. We turn to Miranda in our next chapter. 


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