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UNITED STATES v. WIGGINS

June 23, 1960

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff,
v.
William H. WIGGINS, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

This is a motion by the defendant in a criminal case to vacate the judgment of conviction and set aside the sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, on the alleged grounds that he was insane when the crime was committed by him, and further that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. The defendant does not deny his guilt or claim innocence. He urges that he should not be held responsible for his crime because of his alleged mental condition.

The defendant was indicted on November 9, 1953 on a charge of robbery. He was tried before Judge Bailey of this Court on February 3, and 4, 1954, and was found guilty by the jury. On February 25, 1954, he was sentenced by Judge Bailey to imprisonment for a term of five to fifteen years. Apparently he has been eligible for parole for some time and, therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that the Parole Board has declined to grant him such relief.

 The present motion was filed some years after the sentence was imposed. A hearing on the motion has been ordered by the Court of Appeals. Since the trial judge is now retired and is no longer active, the matter was assigned to me in the course of the ordinary routine, pursuant to Rule 25 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 18 U.S.C.

 There has been a growing misunderstanding on the part of prisoners who have been convicted and sentenced, as to the nature and scope of motions under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, to vacate the judgment of conviction and set aside the sentence. It seems appropriate, therefore, to recapitulate the basic principles governing such applications.

 The pertinent portions of the statute 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.'

 Apparently many prisoners assume that the remedy accorded by this provision is an additional routine review of the conviction, and frequently endeavor to institute such proceedings as a matter of course. Almost invariably such an application is filed by the prisoner in propria persona. Evidently the petition is prepared by him in what Arnold J., aptly termed 'the enforced leisure of his confinement'. *fn1" Manifestly this attitude constitutes a complete misconception and utter misunderstanding of the purpose and scope of the statute.

 Ordinarily if a defendant pleads guilty and is sentenced, the entire case then comes to an end. Generally no motion lies under Section 2255 to set aside the sentence imposed on the basis of a plea of guilty. Such a plea is a solemn acknowledgment of guilt and constitutes a conviction. Under such circumstances the sentence may not be set aside and the defendant may not be permitted to withdraw his plea of guilty except by motion under Rule 32(d) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Under this Rule, the Court is limited to granting such a motion only 'to correct manifest injustice'. Conditions justifying setting aside a plea of guilty after sentence has been imposed are, therefore, exceptional and rare. A defendant who enters a plea of guilty with a mental reservation is endeavoring to nurture but a forlorn hope.

 If a defendant pleads not guilty and is tried, convicted and sentenced, the law gives him recourse to appellate proceedings in the Court of Appeals, which in some instances may be followed by a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. Errors alleged to have been committed at the trial may not be reviewed in any manner other than by appeal. When appellate proceedings come to an end, or if they are not instituted in due time, the case is closed.

 A motion to set aside a sentence under Section 2255 is not a substitute for an appeal. Such a motion is reserved solely for unusual and exceptional situations, as is also true of writs of habeas corpus and writs of error coram nobis. *fn2" To justify such relief it must affirmatively appear that by reason of some drastic deprivation or vital denial to the defendant of a paramount constitutional right, the trial court either had no jurisdiction or had lost it. The words 'or is otherwise subject to collateral attack' add but little to the preceding clauses, since a judgment of conviction and a sentence imposed thereon are not ordinarily subject to collateral attack, except on the extraordinary grounds just mentioned. *fn3"

 On a motion under Section 2255, the Court may not consider any defense to the indictment that might have been asserted at the trial. Thus, the defense of insanity or lack of mental capacity to commit the crime may not be entertained on such a motion. It must be interposed at the trial, if at all. On the other hand, there is a debatable question, concerning which there is a difference of opinion, whether mental capacity to stand trial at the time when the trial took place, is a matter that the Court may review on a motion under Section 2255. There is a cleavage among the Circuits on this point, some Circuits holding that such a question may not be raised collaterally on such a motion, and others adhering to the opposite view. In the District of Columbia Circuit it has been held by the Court of Appeals that this issue is open on a motion of this type, Bishop v. United States, 96 U.S.App.D.C. 117, 120, 233 F.2d 582.

 Consequently, in the case at bar this Court declined to consider the contention that the defendant was insane at the time of the commission of the crime. The Court is passing, however, on the allegation that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial at the time when he was tried. A full hearing was held on this issue, considerable testimony was introduced by both sides, and at the request of counsel for the defendant, who had been appointed by the Court, a number of continuances were granted to enable him to procure various records.

 The burden of proof is on the moving party to establish the contentions on which a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 is founded. In fact, as Judge Prettyman observed in Bishop v. United States, supra, 96 U.S.App.D.C. at page 121, 223 F.2d at page 586, the moving party on such a motion 'undertakes a severe burden'. He further emphasized that the burden becomes magnified with lapse of time. Manifestly any other rule might well lead to a frustration of justice. The Government cannot be expected to procure evidence and affirmatively establish the mental capacity of a person as of a date many years previously.

 While no statute of limitations runs against the assertion of a Constitutional right under Section 2255, nevertheless, lapse of time affects the quantum of required proof, as well as the good faith and the credibility of the moving party. If a prisoner after a long interval were able to obtain a new trial by means of a motion under Section 2255, the Government might well find itself unable to prove the defendant's guilt due to possible death, disappearance, or fading memory of witnesses. While zeal to protect the rights of defendants is commendable, the courts may not ignore the fact that it is also one of the primary purposes of the criminal law to protect members of the public in their homes and on the streets. 'But 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. ...


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