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THOMAS v. ARIZONA

decided: May 19, 1958.

THOMAS
v.
ARIZONA



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker

Author: Clark

[ 356 U.S. Page 391]

 MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner has been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by an Arizona court for the killing of one Janie Miscovich. He asks this Court to reverse his conviction on the ground that a confession received in evidence at his trial was coerced by fear of lynching, in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The victim, proprietor of a grocery store in Kansas Settlement, Arizona, was killed while tending her store on the evening of March 16, 1953. No one witnessed the

[ 356 U.S. Page 392]

     crime, but strong circumstantial evidence indicated that it occurred between 10 p. m. and 11 p. m., and that petitioner was responsible. He was arrested the next day under circumstances which lend credence to his assertion of a "putative lynching." The confession at issue, however, was not made until the day following the arrest, when he was taken before a Justice of the Peace for preliminary examination.

After an initial determination of voluntariness, the trial judge in the Superior Court of Cochise County, Arizona, submitted the issue of coercion to the jury under instructions to ignore the confession as evidence unless it was found entirely voluntary. A general verdict of guilty was returned by the jury and accepted by the trial court. The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed, 78 Ariz. 52, 275 P. 2d 408, and we denied certiorari.*fn1 350 U.S. 950 (1956). Petitioner then made application for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. After reviewing the entire record, the District Court denied the writ without a hearing. The Court of Appeals

[ 356 U.S. Page 393]

     affirmed, 235 F.2d 775, and we granted certiorari because of the seriousness of petitioner's allegations under the Due Process Clause. 352 U.S. 1024. An exhaustive review of the record, however, impels us to conclude that petitioner's confession was "the expression of free choice," Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 53 (1949), and not the product of fear, duress, or coercion.

The prosecution's use of a coerced confession first led to this Court's reversal of a state conviction in Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936). Our resolution of similar claims in subsequent cases makes clear that "the question whether there has been a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by the introduction of an involuntary confession is one on which we must make an independent determination on the undisputed facts." Malinski v. New York, 324 U.S. 401, 404 (1945). No encroachment of the traditional jury function results, for the issue of coercion, unlike the basic facts on which coercion is ascertained, involves the application of constitutional standards of fundamental fairness under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 507 (1953) (concurring opinion). In each instance our inquiry must weigh the "circumstances of pressure against the power of resistance of the person confessing." Fikes v. Alabama, 352 U.S. 191, 197 (1957), quoting Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 185 (1953).

We turn then to the undisputed portions of the record to ascertain the facts against which petitioner's claim of coercion must be measured.

I.

Petitioner is an itinerant Negro laborer who lived with his common-law wife and four other Negroes, including one Ross Lee Cooper, a 17-year-old boy, in an old barracks provided by his employer about a half mile from the victim's store. Petitioner is a Navy veteran, 27 years

[ 356 U.S. Page 394]

     old at the time of the murder, with a partial high school education. He had a criminal record of three different convictions, the most serious being a five-year larceny sentence, as well as two terms in the Navy brig for twice being absent without leave from his service post.

The body of Janie Miscovich was found Tuesday morning, March 17. A supplier noticed smoke coming from the store and summoned the help of three men constructing a building nearby, one of whom was petitioner. Petitioner did nothing to assist in putting out the fire, and left the scene before the victim's body was discovered, declaring that he "never could stand the stench of burning flesh." Although the body was severely beaten and burned, death was attributed to knife wounds in the heart, inflicted with a large knife found later in the store.

Preliminary investigation by local police disclosed that petitioner and Cooper were at the store together Monday afternoon and evening. After they returned to the barracks at approximately 8:30 p. m., petitioner left again by himself, returning around midnight. A trail of blood and footprints was traced from the store to within 50 yards of the barracks, where a strip of freshly harrowed ground made further tracking impossible. Blood spots were found in the kitchen of the barracks, and two bloody gloves were found hidden near the barracks. Both gloves were for the right hand and one of them was slit across the middle, ring and little fingers. Matching gloves were found in the store, where nine pairs plus two gloves for the left hand remained out of 12 pairs of gloves stocked by Janie Miscovich on Monday. The only pair of shoes petitioner owned, found under his bed in the ...


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