Spano v. New York

360 U.S. 315

Case Year: 1959

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Warren

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Brennan, Clark, Douglas, Frankfurter, Harlan, Stewart, Whittaker


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Douglas


1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Stewart


2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Vincent Joseph Spano, a twenty-five-year-old Italian immigrant with a junior high school education and a record of regular employment, was drinking in a bar on January 22, 1957, when Palermo, a former professional boxer, took some of Spano's money off the bar. Spano followed Palermo out of the bar to recover it. A fight broke out and Spano was badly beaten by the much larger and more skilled Palermo. Spano then went to his apartment, secured a gun, and searched for his assailant. He found the former boxer in a candy store and fired five shots. Two bullets entered Palermo's body, killing him. A boy working in the candy store was the only witness. Spano then left the scene and disappeared for approximately a week.

A police investigation concluded that Spano was the likely killer, he was indicted, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. On February 3, Spano called close friend Bruno Gaspar, who was training to become a police officer. Spano told Gaspar that he had been severely beaten and had not known what he was doing when he fired the shots. He said that he intended to get a lawyer and give himself up. Gaspar relayed this information to his superiors at the police department.

On February 4, Spano, accompanied by his attorney, surrendered to police. His attorney advised him to answer no questions. Spano was interrogated after his attorney left, but he refused to talk. He requested to see his lawyer at several points during the interrogation, but the requests were denied. After several unproductive hours, police decided to enlist the help of Gaspar. Gaspar was told to tell Spano that he was in deep trouble because police knew he was Spano's friend. If Spano did not talk, Gaspar, who had a pregnant wife and three children, would lose his job. Police hoped that this appeal to Spano's sympathies might result in a confession. Over the course of the night, Gaspar made four separate appeals for Spano to tell the police about the shooting. Spano at first resisted, but finally, at about 3:25 A.M., he broke down and agreed to talk. A stenographer was brought into the room to record the confession. Police then took Spano out in a patrol car to see if he would tell them where he had discarded the murder weapon. During this exercise, police extracted additional incriminating statements.

The confession evidence was introduced at Spano's trial, over his attorney's objections. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. The state court of appeals affirmed.



This is another in the long line of cases presenting the question whether a confession was properly admitted into evidence under the Fourteenth Amendment. As in all such cases, we are forced to resolve a conflict between two fundamental interests of society; its interest in prompt and efficient law enforcement, and its interest in preventing the rights of its individual members from being abridged by unconstitutional methods of law enforcement. Because of the delicate nature of the constitutional determination which we must make, we cannot escape the responsibility of making our own examination of the record....

The abhorrence of society to the use of involuntary confessions does not turn alone on their inherent untrustworthiness. It also turns on the deep-rooted feeling that the police must obey the law while enforcing the law; that in the end life and liberty can be as much endangered from illegal methods used to convict those thought to be criminals as from the actual criminals themselves. Accordingly, the actions of police in obtaining confessions have come under scrutiny in a long series of cases. Those cases suggest that in recent years law enforcement officials have become increasingly aware of the burden which they share, along with our courts, in protecting fundamental rights of our citizenry, including that portion of our citizenry suspected of crime. The facts of no case recently in this Court have quite approached the brutal beatings in Brown v. Mississippi (1936), or the 36 consecutive hours of questioning present in Ashcraft v. Tennessee (1944). But as law enforcement officers become more responsible, and the methods used to extract confessions more sophisticated, our duty to enforce federal constitutional protections does not cease. It only becomes more difficult because of the more delicate judgments to be made. Our judgment here is that, on all the facts, this conviction cannot stand.

Petitioner was a foreign-born young man of 25 with no past history of law violation or of subjection to official interrogation, at least insofar as the record shows. He had progressed only one-half year into high school and the record indicates that he had a history of emotional instability. He did not make a narrative statement, but was subject to the leading questions of a skillful prosecutor in a question and answer confession. He was subjected to questioning not by a few men, but by many.... All played some part, and the effect of such massive official interrogation must have been felt. Petitioner was questioned for virtually eight straight hours before he confessed, with his only respite being a transfer to an arena presumably considered more appropriate by the police for the task at hand. Nor was the questioning conducted during normal business hours, but began in early evening, continued into the night, and did not bear fruition until the not-too-early morning. The drama was not played out, with the final admissions obtained, until almost sunrise. In such circumstances slowly mounting fatigue does, and is calculated to, play its part. The questioners persisted in the face of his repeated refusals to answer on the advice of his attorney, and they ignored his reasonable requests to contact the local attorney whom he had already retained and who had personally delivered him into the custody of these officers in obedience to the bench warrant.

The use of Bruno, characterized in this Court by counsel for the State as a "childhood friend" of petitioner's, is another factor which deserves mention in the totality of the situation. Bruno's was the one face visible to petitioner in which he could put some trust. There was a bond of friendship between them going back a decade into adolescence. It was with this material that the officers felt that they could overcome petitioner's will. They instructed Bruno falsely to state that petitioner's telephone call had gotten him into trouble, that his job was in jeopardy, and that loss of his job would be disastrous to his three children, his wife and his unborn child. And Bruno played this part of a worried father, harried by his superiors, in not one, but four different acts, the final one lasting an hour...

We conclude that petitioner's will was overborne by official pressure, fatigue and sympathy falsely aroused, after considering all the facts in their post-indictment setting. Here a grand jury had already found sufficient cause to require petitioner to face trial on a charge of first-degree murder, and the police had an eyewitness to the shooting. The police were not therefore merely trying to solve a crime, or even to absolve a suspect.... They were rather concerned primarily with securing a statement from defendant on which they could convict him. The undeviating intent of the officers to extract a confession from petitioner is therefore patent. When such an intent is shown, this Court has held that the confession obtained must be examined with the most careful scrutiny, and has reversed a conviction on facts less compelling than these.... Accordingly, we hold that petitioner's conviction cannot stand under the Fourteenth Amendment....

The judgment must be



While I join the opinion of the Court, I add what for me is an even more important ground of decision.... We do not have here mere suspects who are being secretly interrogated by the police.... This is a case of an accused, who is scheduled to be tried by a judge and jury, being tried in a preliminary way by the police. This is a kangaroo court procedure whereby the police produce the vital evidence in the form of a confession which is useful or necessary to obtain a conviction. They in effect deny him effective representation by counsel. This seems to me to be a flagrant violation of the principle announced in Powell v. Alabama that the right of counsel extends to the preparation for trial, as well as to the trial itself.... When he is deprived of that right after indictment and before trial, he may indeed be denied effective representation by counsel at the only stage when legal aid and advice would help him. This secret inquisition by the police when defendant asked for and was denied counsel was as serious an invasion of his constitutional rights as the denial of a continuance in order to employ counsel was held to be in Chandler v. Fretag. What we said in Avery v. Alabama has relevance here:

"... the denial of opportunity for appointed counsel to confer, to consult with the accused and to prepare his defense, could convert the appointment of counsel into a sham and nothing more than a formal compliance with the Constitution's requirement that an accused be given the assistance of counsel."

... [W]hat use is a defendant's right to effective counsel at every stage of a criminal case if, while he is held awaiting trial, he can be questioned in the absence of counsel until he confesses? In that event the secret trial in the police precincts effectively supplants the public trial guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.


While I concur in the opinion of the Court, it is my view that the absence of counsel when this confession was elicited was alone enough to render it inadmissible under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Let it be emphasized at the outset that this is not a case where the police were questioning a suspect in the course of investigating an unsolved crime.... When the petitioner surrendered to the New York authorities he was under indictment for first degree murder.

Under our system of justice an indictment is supposed to be followed by an arraignment and a trial. At every stage in those proceedings the accused has an absolute right to a lawyer's help if the case is one in which a death sentence may be imposed.... Indeed the right to the assistance of counsel whom the accused has himself retained is absolute, whatever the offense for which he is on trial....

What followed the petitioner's surrender in this case was not arraignment in a court of law, but an all-night inquisition in a prosecutor's office, a police station, and an automobile. Throughout the night the petitioner repeatedly asked to be allowed to send for his lawyer, and his requests were repeatedly denied. He finally was induced to make a confession. That confession was used to secure a verdict sending him to the electric chair. Our Constitution guarantees the assistance of counsel to a man on trial for his life in an orderly courtroom, presided over by a judge, open to the public, and protected by all the procedural safeguards of the law. Surely a Constitution which promises that much can vouchsafe no less to the same man under midnight inquisition in the squad room of a police station.