Brewer v. Williams

430 U.S. 387

Case Year: 1977

Case Ruling: 5-4, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Stewart

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brennan, Marshall, Powell, Stevens


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Marshall


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Blackmun

Joiner(s): White, Rehnquist

2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Powell


2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Burger


3rd Concurring Opinion

Author: Stevens


3rd Dissenting Opinion

Author: White


Other Concurring Opinions:


On December 24, 1968, ten-year-old Pamela Powers went with her family to the YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa, to watch her brother participate in a wrestling tournament. When she did not return from the restroom, her parents and others began to search for her. A fourteen-year-old boy reported that he had helped a man carrying a large bundle in the YMCA lobby. The boy said he had helped open the door to the street and the door to the man's car. Before the man drove off, the boy saw two "skinny," "white" legs dangling from the bundle. Based on the boy's description, police identified the man as Robert Williams, who had recently escaped from a mental institution. Later Williams's abandoned car was found near Davenport, Iowa, about 160 miles from Des Moines. A warrant was then issued for his arrest.

On December 26, Henry McKnight, a local attorney, informed Des Moines police that Williams had contacted him, and that he had advised Williams to turn himself in to Davenport police. Williams did surrender later that day. He was placed under arrest by Davenport police and given his Miranda warnings. Williams consulted with McKnight over the telephone, and the lawyer informed him that Des Moines police would be coming to Davenport to pick him up. McKnight advised Williams not to say anything about Pamela Powers until he returned to Des Moines and could have further discussions with his lawyer. The Des Moines police agreed that they would not interrogate Williams while returning him to Des Moines. Back in Davenport, Williams was arraigned before a judge who again advised him of hisMiranda rights. Williams also sought the advice of a Davenport attorney named Kelly who also told him not to say anything to police about Pamela Powers.

A Des Moines detective named Leaming and another officer drove to Davenport to pick up Williams. Kelly requested to ride back to Des Moines in the police car with Williams, but his request was denied. He then warned the two officers not to question Williams about the incident on the way back to Des Moines. At no point on the drive back to Des Moines did Williams express a desire to answer questions.

Detective Leaming knew that Williams was a mental patient and that he was also deeply religious. Shortly after leaving Davenport, Leaming turned to Williams who was sitting in the back seat of the police car and gave what has come to be referred to as the "Christian burial speech":

"I want to give you something to think about while we're traveling down the road.... Number one, I want you to observe the weather conditions, it's raining, it's sleeting, it's freezing, driving is very treacherous, visibility is poor, it's going to be dark early this evening. They are predicting several inches of snow for tonight, and I feel that you yourself are the only person that knows where this little girl's body is, that you yourself have only been there once, and if you get a snow on top of it you yourself may be unable to find it. And, since we will be going right past the area on the way into Des Moines, I feel that we could stop and locate the body, that the parents of this little girl should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas [E]ve and murdered. And I feel we should stop and locate it on the way in rather than waiting until morning and trying to come back out after a snow storm and possibly not being able to find it at all."

Leaming then said, "I do not want you to answer me. I don't want to discuss it any further. Just think about it as we're riding down the road." Not long thereafter, Williams directed the police to the body of Pamela Powers. Williams was charged with first-degree murder. Before and during his trial, Williams's attorney unsuccessfully moved to suppress all evidence related to or resulting from the automobile ride from Davenport to Des Moines. The trial court judge and subsequent appeals courts ruled that Williams had been informed of his Miranda rights and had voluntarily decided to utter the incriminating statements. Williams was convicted. His attorneys subsequently filed a habeas corpus motion in the federal courts, where they successfully argued that that the evidence should not have been admitted at trial. The state appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.



... There can be no doubt in the present case that judicial proceedings had been initiated against Williams before the start of the automobile ride from Davenport to Des Moines. A warrant had been issued for his arrest, he had been arraigned on that warrant before a judge in a Davenport courtroom, and he had been committed by the court to confinement in jail. The State does not contend otherwise.

There can be no serious doubt, either, that Detective Leaming deliberately and designedly set out to elicit information from Williams just as surely as--and perhaps more effectively than--if he had formally interrogated him. Detective Leaming was fully aware before departing for Des Moines that Williams was being represented in Davenport by Kelly and in Des Moines by McKnight. Yet he purposely sought during Williams' isolation from his lawyers to obtain as much incriminating information as possible. Indeed, Detective Leaming conceded as much when he testified at Williams' trial....

The state courts clearly proceeded upon the hypothesis that Detective Leaming's "Christian burial speech" had been tantamount to interrogation. Both courts recognized that Williams had been entitled to the assistance of counsel at the time he made the incriminating statements. Yet no such constitutional protection would have come into play if there had been no interrogation....

... [T]he clear rule ... is that once adversary proceedings have commenced against an individual, he has a right to legal representation when the government interrogates him. It thus requires no wooden or technical application of [precedent] to conclude that Williams was entitled to the assistance of counsel guaranteed to him by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Iowa courts recognized that Williams had been denied the constitutional right to the assistance of counsel. They held, however, that he had waived that right during the course of the automobile trip from Davenport to Des Moines. The state trial court explained its determination of waiver as follows:

"The time element involved on the trip, the general circumstances of it, and more importantly the absence on the Defendant's part of any assertion of his right or desire not to give information absent the presence of his attorney, are the main foundations for the Court's conclusion that he voluntarily waived such right."

... In the federal habeas corpus proceeding the District Court, believing that the issue of waiver was not one of fact but of federal law, held that the Iowa courts had "applied the wrong constitutional standards" in ruling that Williams had waived the protections that were his under the Constitution.... The court held "that it is the government which bears a heavy burden ... but that is the burden which explicitly was placed on [Williams] by the state courts."...

The Court of Appeals approved the reasoning of the District Court....

We conclude ... that the Court of Appeals was correct in holding that ... the record in this case falls far short of sustaining petitioner's burden. It is true that Williams had been informed of and appeared to understand his right to counsel. But waiver requires not merely comprehension but relinquishment, and Williams' consistent reliance upon the advice of counsel in dealing with the authorities refutes any suggestion that he waived that right. He consulted McKnight by long-distance telephone before turning himself in. He spoke with McKnight by telephone again shortly after being booked. After he was arraigned, Williams sought out and obtained legal advice from Kelly. Williams again consulted with Kelly after Detective Leaming and his fellow officer arrived in Davenport. Throughout, Williams was advised not to make any statements before seeing McKnight in Des Moines, and was assured that the police had agreed not to question him. His statements while in the car that he would tell the whole story after seeing McKnight in Des Moines were the clearest expressions by Williams himself that he desired the presence of an attorney before any interrogation took place. But even before making these statements, Williams had effectively asserted his right to counsel by having secured attorneys at both ends of the automobile trip, both of whom, acting as his agents, had made clear to the police that no interrogation was to occur during the journey. Williams knew of that agreement and, particularly in view of his consistent reliance on counsel, there is no basis for concluding that he disavowed it.

Despite Williams' express and implicit assertions of his right to counsel, Detective Leaming proceeded to elicit incriminating statements from Williams. Leaming did not preface this effort by telling Williams that he had a right to the presence of a lawyer, and made no effort at all to ascertain whether Williams wished to relinquish that right. The circumstances of record in this case thus provide no reasonable basis for finding that Williams waived his right to the assistance of counsel....

The crime of which Williams was convicted was senseless and brutal, calling for swift and energetic action by the police to apprehend the perpetrator and gather evidence with which he could be convicted. No mission of law enforcement officials is more important.... Although we do not lightly affirm the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus in this case, so clear a violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments as here occurred cannot be condoned. The pressures on state executive and judicial officers charged with the administration of the criminal law are great, especially when the crime is murder and the victim a small child. But it is precisely the predictability of those pressures that makes imperative a resolute loyalty to the guarantees that the Constitution extends to us all.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

It is so ordered.


The result in this case ought to be intolerable in any society which purports to call itself an organized society. It continues the Court--by the narrowest margin--on the much-criticized course of punishing the public for the mistakes and misdeeds of law enforcement officers, instead of punishing the officer directly, if in fact he is guilty of wrongdoing. It mechanically and blindly keeps reliable evidence from juries whether the claimed constitutional violation involves gross police misconduct or honest human error.

Williams is guilty of the savage murder of a small child; no member of the Court contends he is not. While in custody, and after no fewer than five warnings of his rights to silence and to counsel, he led police to the concealed body of his victim. The Court concedes Williams was not threatened or coerced and that he spoke and acted voluntarily and with full awareness of his constitutional rights. In the face of all this, the Court now holds that because Williams was prompted by the detective's statement--not interrogation but a statement--the jury must not be told how the police found the body.

Today's holding fulfills Judge (later Mr. Justice) Cardozo's grim prophecy that someday some court might carry the exclusionary rule to the absurd extent that its operative effect would exclude evidence relating to the body of a murder victim because of the means by which it was found. In so ruling the Court regresses to playing a grisly game of "hide and seek," once more exalting the sporting theory of criminal justice which has been experiencing a decline in our jurisprudence. With JUSTICES WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, I categorically reject the remarkable notion that the police in this case were guilty of unconstitutional misconduct, or any conduct justifying the bizarre result reached by the Court....


The respondent in this case killed a 10-year-old child. The majority sets aside his conviction, holding that certain statements of unquestioned reliability were unconstitutionally obtained from him, and under the circumstances probably makes it impossible to retry him. Because there is nothing in the Constitution or in our previous cases which requires the Court's action, I dissent....

The consequence of the majority's decision is, as the majority recognizes, extremely serious. A mentally disturbed killer whose guilt is not in question may be released. Why? Apparently the answer is that the majority believes that the law enforcement officers acted in a way which involves some risk of injury to society and that such conduct should be deterred. However, the officers' conduct did not, and was not likely to, jeopardize the fairness of respondent's trial or in any way risk the conviction of an innocent man--the risk against which the Sixth Amendment guarantee of assistance of counsel is designed to protect.... The police did nothing "wrong," let alone anything "unconstitutional." To anyone not lost in the intricacies of the prophylactic rules of Miranda v. Arizona, the result in this case seems utterly senseless; ... the statements made by respondent were properly admitted. In light of these considerations, the majority's protest that the result in this case is justified by a "clear violation" of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments has a distressing hollow ring. I respectfully dissent.


... The Court rules that the Sixth Amendment was violated because Detective Leaming "purposely sought during Williams' isolation from his lawyers to obtain as much incriminating information as possible."... I cannot regard that as unconstitutional per se.

First, the police did not deliberately seek to isolate Williams from his lawyers so as to deprive him of the assistance of counsel.... The isolation in this case was a necessary incident of transporting Williams to the county where the crime was committed.

Second, Leaming's purpose was not solely to obtain incriminating evidence. The victim had been missing for only two days, and the police could not be certain that she was dead. Leaming, of course, and in accord with his duty, was "hoping to find out where that little girl was," ... but such motivation does not equate with an intention to evade the Sixth Amendment. Moreover, the Court seems to me to place an undue emphasis ... and aspersion on what it and the lower courts have chosen to call the "Christian burial speech," and on Williams' "deeply religious" convictions.

Third, not every attempt to elicit information should be regarded as "tantamount to interrogation."... I am not persuaded that Leaming's observations and comments, made as the police car traversed the snowy and slippery miles between Davenport and Des Moines that winter afternoon, were an interrogation, direct or subtle, of Williams. Contrary to this Court's statement, the Iowa Supreme Court appears to me to have thought and held otherwise, ... and I agree. Williams, after all, was counseled by lawyers, and warned by the arraigning judge in Davenport and by the police, and yet it was he who started the travel conversations and brought up the subject of the criminal investigation. Without further reviewing the circumstances of the trip, I would say it is clear there was no interrogation....

... I can understand the discomfiture the Court obviously suffers and expresses.... This was a brutal, tragic, and heinous crime inflicted upon a young girl on the afternoon of the day before Christmas. With the exclusionary rule operating as the Court effectuates it, the decision today probably means that, as a practical matter, no new trial will be possible at this date eight years after the crime, and that this respondent necessarily will go free. That, of course, is not the standard by which a case of this kind strictly is to be judged. But, as Judge Webster in dissent below observed ... placing the case in sensible and proper perspective: "The evidence of Williams' guilt was overwhelming. No challenge is made to the reliability of the fact-finding process." I am in full agreement with that observation.