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UNITED STATES v. EDWARDS

June 7, 1957

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Alphonzo EDWARDS, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

The defendant, Alphonzo Edwards, was sentenced on March 9, 1956, on pleas of guilty, to terms of imprisonment on three charges of robbery. He now moves in proper person to vacate and set the sentences aside.

The motion is made under 28 U.S.Code ยง 2255, the pertinent provisions of which read as follows:

 'A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.'

 The defendant alleges a number of grounds in support of his application. In view of this circumstance, as well as in the light of the fact that in recent years there has been a large increase in such motions, generally filed by convicted prisoners without the aid of counsel, it seems desirable to review and redefine precisely the restricted scope of the governing statute and the limited matters that may be considered under it. This can best be done by reverting to a consideration of first principles and the pertinent aspects of the history of the writ of habeas corpus, since the statute was enacted as a substitute for certain functions of the great writ.

 One of the basic and fundamental purposes for which Governments are instituted is to protect peaceful members of society against depredations on the part of unruly individuals. The instrumentality used to achieve this objective is the criminal law. Punishment is inflicted on transgressors, not for the purpose of wreaking vengeance or exacting retribution, but in order to protect victims of crimes and potential sufferers of possible future aggressions by discouraging offenders from a repetition of the evil acts and deterring others from committing similar breaches of law and order. The safety of the victim of the crime and the security of potential victims of possible future crimes, must be a prime concern of those charged with the administration of the criminal law. At the same time it is equally necessary to shield innocent persons against false accusations, to prevent the conviction of suspects on flimsy or doubtful evidence, and to assure the use of civilized methods even against the guilty. For these reasons, under Anglo-American jurisprudence, unlike some other systems of law prevailing elsewhere, the accused is clothed with a presumption of innocence and his guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt before he can be convicted. Moreover, he is surrounded with certain other well known safeguards. In this respect Anglo-American jurisprudence goes farther than some other systems of law in preserving the rights of the accused. As a consequence, undoubtedly there are times when criminals escape through the meshes and go unwhipped of justice. This result is preferable, however, to the possible risk of convicting an innocent person. On the other hand, it is necessary not to concentrate on the privileges of the accused to the extent of neglecting the interests of the victim of the crime. The victim must not become a forgotten man.

 The basic philosophy on which the administration of the criminal law must rest, is nowhere better formulated than by Mr. Justice Cardozo, in Snyder v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 122, 54 S. Ct. 330, 338, 78 L. Ed. 674, where he made the following pronouncement:

 '* * * justice, though due to the accused, is due to the accuser also. The concept of fairness must not be strained till it is narrowed to a filament. We are to keep the balance true.'

 Every person charged with a crime is entitled to one trial and one appeal as of right. The first was accorded to him by the common law and is guaranteed by the Constitution. The second is granted by statute. There must, however, be an end to litigation and under ordinary circumstances the law does not contemplate any further proceedings. An exception is made for unusual cases in which newly discovered evidence develops after the trial. Motions for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence, are recognized and permitted.

 It is not a sufficient safeguard of liberty, however, to stop at providing fair trials for persons charged with criminal offenses. It is also indispensable to prevent imprisonment by executive action without a trial. History shows that one of the evils flowing from tyrannical and dictatorial governments whose power is not properly limited, is arbitrary imprisonment of individuals without trial. To prevent this abuse the common law developed the writ of habeas corpus, which later became statutory as a result of the enactment of the epoch making Habeas Corpus Act. This Act is one of the beacon lights of freedom. The writ of habeas corpus became a palladium of liberty. In developing this great prerogative writ Anglo-American jurisprudence again showed a greater concern for human dignity and personal freedom than is frequently the case under other systems of law.

 Thus the purpose of the writ of habeas corpus was to prevent imprisonment without a trial, as well as to afford a remedy in cases in which a trial was unduly delayed. Consequently, a return showing that the petitioner was incarcerated pursuant to a judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction, was a complete answer to the writ and closed the inquiry. Any error in the proceeding culminating in the judgment could not be reviewed by a writ of habeas corpus, for the writ was not intended for that purpose. *fn1"

 In recent years, however, the Supreme Court extended the use of the writ of habeas corpus to certain exceptional situations in which the petitioner was convicted, but the judgment of conviction might be deemed to be void, as distinguished from erroneous. The first striking step in that direction was taken in Moore v. Dempsey, 1923, 261 U.S. 86, 43 S. Ct. 265, 67 L. Ed. 543, in which the Court held that a writ of habeas corpus might issue on a showing that the trial court had been completely dominated by a mob, thereby rendering the trial a sham and a mask. The Court indicated that under such circumstances, the judgment of conviction would be void.

 In Mooney v. Holohan, 1935, 294 U.S. 103, 112, 55 S. Ct. 340, 79 L. Ed. 791, it was stated that if the prosecuting authorities knowingly procured a conviction by perjured testimony, the deception on the court made the trial a pretense, thereby rendering the judgment void. It was suggested that under such circumstances, a writ of habeas corpus would lie. In Bowen v. Johnston, 1939, 306 U.S. 19, 59 S. Ct. 442, 83 L. Ed. 455, it was indicated that territorial jurisdiction of the trial court, that is whether Federal or State courts had authority over a particular area, might be questioned in a habeas corpus proceeding.

 The most far-reaching of this group of decisions is Johnson v. Zerbst, 1938, 304 U.S. 458, 58 S. Ct. 1019, 82 L. Ed. 1461. This case is an important milestone in the progress of human liberty, because it, for the first time, construed the constitutional right of counsel under the Sixth Amendment as comprising a privilege of an indigent defendant to have counsel assigned to him by the court. From the standpoint of the present discussion, however, the importance of the case lies in its procedural aspect. It reaches the conclusion that failure to accord this right at the trial might be raised by a writ of habeas corpus on the theory that thereby the court lost jurisdiction. In brief, it should be emphasized that it is only in a few extreme and extraordinary situations that a writ of habeas corpus could be invoked to invalidate a judgment of conviction regular on its face.

 The decision on Johnson v. Zerbst had many practical ramifications. It gave rise to a plethora of applications on the part of convicted prisoners in Federal penal institutions, claiming that they were not accorded the right of counsel at their trial or when they pleaded guilty. United States District Courts for the districts in which such institutions were located became flooded with applications of this kind. Most of the petitions proved entirely lacking in merit, but each of them required careful consideration, thus imposing an unexpectedly heavy burden on some district judges. What was much more important, this unforeseen development led to the strange outcome of one district judge passing upon the validity of proceedings before another district judge, sometimes located at a distant point, on evidence dehors the record. One Court of Appeals characterized this practice as 'unseemly'. *fn2" There was a still worse feature lurking in this procedure. Since evidence dehors the record was taken at the hearing, the trial judge at times became a witness, either by deposition or otherwise. Thus an intolerable situation developed of having the testimony of the trial judge and the word of a convicted felon pitted against each other. This result was manifestly incompatible with the dignity of the Federal judiciary and did not enhance respect for the courts on the part of evildoers. *fn3" Thus, the great writ of habeas corpus became temporarily distorted to that extent and its use was deflected from its historic lofty objective for the time being.

 The Judicial Conference of the United States took cognizance of this serious problem and of the evils lying in its wake, and appointed a Committee to consider it. This Committee was headed by Honorable John J. Parker, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, as Chairman. It recommended legislation, which became Section 2255 of Title 28 of the United States Code. The purpose of this measure was to transfer from the judge who might have issued a writ of habeas corpus to the judge who originally tried the case, the consideration of matters that had theretofore been litigated in habeas corpus proceedings after a conviction in the Federal courts. This object was attained by permitting a motion to set aside and vacate the judgment and sentence to be made before the trial judge, as a ...


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