Brown v. Mississippi

297 U.S. 278

Case Year: 1936

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Hughes

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brandeis, Butler, Cardozo, McReynolds, Roberts, Stone, Sutherland, VanDevanter


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


On the afternoon of March 30, 1934, police in Kemper County, Mississippi, were called to the home of Raymond Stewart by neighbors who had discovered Stewart's badly beaten body. The police summoned a physician, but Stewart died just as he arrived. The crime scene gave every indication that robbery had been the motive for the break-in. The perpetrator had attacked Stewart with an axe or pick, crushing his head. There had been an attempt to cover up the crime by setting the house on fire, but the flames had failed to spread. Police immediately suspected Ed Brown, a thirty-year-old black tenant on Stewart's farm. They also believed twenty-seven-year-old Henry Shields and twenty-year-old Yank Ellington were involved. Shields and Ellington lived close by and were friends of Brown.

Deputy Sheriff Dial and a group of townspeople went to Ellington's residence and took him to Stewart's home. There, the group accused Ellington of the murder. When he refused to admit involvement, the mob took Ellington out to a tree where they hanged him until near death and then brought him down. The group again demanded a confession, but Ellington claimed his innocence. The hanging procedure was repeated, but Ellington still refused to confess. The group then whipped him before letting him go. A day later the deputy and another group of townspeople again picked up Ellington and whipped him, claiming that they would not stop until he confessed. After suffering considerable pain, Ellington admitted to the murder. He was then taken to jail.

Brown and Shields were also arrested and confined to the same jail. On April 1, Deputy Dial and a group of local white men came to the jail. They stripped Brown and Shields, laid them across some chairs, and beat them with a leather strap and buckle. When Brown and Shields refused to confess, the white men promised that they would not stop beating them until they admitted involvement in the murder. Finally, Brown and Shields confessed. Before leaving the jail, the deputy told the defendants that if they ever changed their stories the beatings would resume.

On April 2 the sheriff, accompanied by nine other men, came to the jailhouse and asked the three to repeat their confessions. They did so. With confessions obtained, the local court called the grand jury into session. Ellington, Brown, and Shields were indicted on the morning of April 4. That afternoon they were arraigned, and an attorney was appointed to represent them. The two-day trail started on April 5. The defendants testified that the confessions were false, and they described the torture that produced them. Still, with no other evidence against them, Ellington, Brown, and Shields were convicted and sentenced to death. The state supreme court upheld the verdict.



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....

1. The state stresses the statement in Twining v. New Jersey [1908] that 'exemption from compulsory self-incrimination in the courts of the states is not secured by any part of the Federal Constitution,' and the statement in Snyder v. Massachusetts [1934] that 'the privilege against self-incrimination may be withdrawn and the accused put upon the stand as a witness for the state.' But the question of the right of the state to withdraw the privilege against self-incrimination is not here involved. The compulsion to which the quoted statements refer is that of the processes of justice by which the accused may be called as a witness and required to testify. Compulsion by torture to extort a confession is a different matter.

The state is free to regulate the procedure of its courts in accordance with its own conceptions of policy, unless in so doing it 'offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.' Snyder v. Massachusetts. The state may abolish trial by jury. It may dispense with indictment by a grand jury and substitute complaint or information.... But the freedom of the state in establishing its policy is the freedom of constitutional government and is limited by the requirement of due process of law. Because a state may dispense with a jury trial, it does not follow that it may substitute trial by ordeal. The rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand. The state may not permit an accused to be hurried to conviction under mob domination--where the whole proceeding is but a mask--without supplying corrective process.... The state may not deny to the accused the aid of counsel.... Nor may a state, through the action of its officers, contrive a conviction through the pretense of a trial which in truth is 'but used as a means of depriving a defendant of liberty through a deliberate deception of court and jury by the presentation of testimony known to be perjured.'... And the trial equally 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.

2. It is in this view that the further contention of the State must be considered. That contention rests upon the failure of counsel for the accused, who had objected to the admissibility of the confessions, to move for their exclusion after they had been introduced and the fact of coercion had been proved. It is a contention which proceeds upon a misconception of the nature of petitioners' complaint. That complaint is not of the commission of mere error, but of a wrong so fundamental that it made the whole proceeding a mere pretense of a trial and rendered the conviction and sentence wholly void.... We are not concerned with a mere question of state practice, or whether counsel assigned to petitioners were competent or mistakenly assumed that their first objections were sufficient. In an earlier case the Supreme Court of the State had recognized the duty of the court to supply corrective process where due process of law had been denied. In Fisher v. State, the [Mississippi Supreme Court] said: 'Coercing the supposed state's criminals into confessions and using such confessions so coerced from them against them in trials has been the curse of all countries. It was the chief iniquity, the crowning infamy of the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, and other similar institutions. The Constitution recognized the evils that lay behind these practices and prohibited them in this country.... The duty of maintaining constitutional rights of a person on trial for his life rises above mere rules of procedure, and wherever the court is clearly satisfied that such violations exist, it will refuse to sanction such violations and will apply the corrective.'

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.

It is so ordered.