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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

339 U.S. 282

Cassell  v.  Texas

 Argued: Nov. 10, 1949. --- Decided: April 24, 1950

Mr. Justice JACKSON, dissenting.

The case before us is that of a Negro convicted of murder by crushing the skull of a sleeping watchman with a piece of iron pipe to carry out a burglary. No question is here as to his guilt. We are asked to order his release from this conviction upon the sole ground that Negroes were purposefully discriminated against in selection of the grand jury that indicted him. It is admitted that Negroes were not excluded from the trial jury by which he was convicted.

In setting aside this conviction, the Court is moved by a desire to enforce equality in that realm where, above all, it must be enforced-in our judicial system. But this conviction is reversed for errors that have nothing to do with the defendant's guilt or innocence, or with a fair trial of that issue. This conflicts with another principle important to our law, viz., that no conviction should be set aside for errors not affecting substantial rights of the accused.

This Court has never weighed these competing considerations in cases of this kind. The use of objections to the composition of juries is lately so much resorted to for purposes of delay, however, and the spectacle of a defendant putting the grand jury on trial before he can be tried for a crime is so discrediting to the administration of justice, that it is time to examine the basis for the practice.

It is the command of the Fourteenth Amendment that Negro citizens be afforded the same opportunities to serve upon grand juries as are afforded white citizens. Moreover, Congress, which is authorized to provide for its enforcement, has enacted that 'no citizen possessing all other qualifications which are or may be prescribed by law shall be disqualified for service as grand or petit juror in any court of the United States, or of any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; * * *.' Act of March 1, 1875, c. 114, § 4, 18 Stat. 336, 62 Stat. 696, 18 U.S.C. § 243, 18 U.S.C.A. § 243.

The substantive right is thus clear. But whose right is it? The right is conferred upon the qualified colored citizen to serve on equal terms with the qualified white citizen. This defendant is not here asking that right for himself. He claims that failure to give other Negroes an equal right to sit on the grand jury gives him quite a different right-a right not to be indicted by it. Two reasons occur to me which could justify this Court in translating the wrong to those Negroes excluded from a grand jury into a right of this defendant to void an indictment. One is that the absence of Negroes on the grand jury prejudiced this defendant. The other is that it is the only practicable method for enforcing the right of qualified Negroes to serve on grand juries. It is doubtful if either of these can be sustained.

Congress, which has implemented the right of Negroes to serve on juries, had also commanded all United States Courts to give judgment 'without regard to technical errors, defects, or exceptions which do not affect the substantial rights of the parties.' [1] And this same congressional policy was manifested in a provision directing that no indictment found and presented by a grand jury in United States Courts 'shall be deemed insufficient, nor shall the trial, judgment, or other proceeding thereon be affected by reason of any defect or imperfection in matter of form only, which shall not tend to the prejudice of the defendant.'; [2] and also in the provision that a motion to quash an indictment shall fail where the ground is that one or more members of the grand jury were unqualified, but where it appears that twelve or more qualified jurors concurred in the finding of the indictment. [3]

This Court never has explained how discrimination in the selection of a grand jury, illegal though it be, has prejudiced a defendant whom a trial jury, chosen with no discrimination, has convicted. The reason this question was not considered perhaps is that, in the earlier cases where convictions were set aside, the discrimination condemned was present in selecting both grand and trial jury and, while the argument was chiefly based on the latter, the language of the opinions made no differentiation, nor for their purpose did they need to. Cf. Strauder v. State of West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 25 L.Ed. 664; Neal v. State of Delaware, 103 U.S. 370, 26 L.Ed. 567; see also Bush v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 107 U.S. 110, 1 S.Ct. 625, 27 L.Ed. 354; Gibson v. State of Mississippi, 162 U.S. 565, 16 S.Ct. 904, 40 L.Ed. 1075; Hale v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 303 U.S. 613, 58 S.Ct. 753, 82 L.Ed. 1050. Only within the last few years have convictions been set aside for discrimination in composition of the grand jury alone, and in these the question now under consideration was not discussed. Pierre v. State of Louisiana, 306 U.S. 354, 59 S.Ct. 536, 83 L.Ed. 757; Smith v. State of Texas, 311 U.S. 128, 61 S.Ct. 164, 85 L.Ed. 84; Hill v. State of Texas, 316 U.S. 400, 62 S.Ct. 1159, 86 L.Ed. 1559.

It is obvious that discriminatory exclusion of Negroes from a trial jury does, or at least may, prejudice a Negro's right to a fair trial, and that a conviction so obtained should not stand. The trial jury hears the evidence of both sides and chooses what it will believe. In so deciding, it is influenced by imponderables unconscious and conscious prejudices and preferences-and a thousand things we cannot detect or isolate in its verdict and whose influence we cannot weigh. A single juror's dissent is generally enough to prevent conviction. A trial jury on which one of the defendant's race has no chance to sit may not have the substance, and cannot have the appearance, of impartiality, especially when the accused is a Negro and the alleged victim is not.

The grand jury is a very different institution. The States are not required to use it at all. Hurtado v. People of State of California, 110 U.S. 516, 4 S.Ct. 292, 28 L.Ed. 232. Its power is only to accuse, not to convict. Its indictment does not even create a presumption of guilt; all that it charges must later be proved before the trial jury, and then beyond a reasonable doubt. The grand jury need not be unanimous. It does not hear both sides but only the prosecution's evidence, and does not face the problem of a choice between two adversaries. Its duty is to indict if the prosecution's evidence, unexplained, uncontradicted and unsupplemented, would warrant a conviction. If so, its indictment merely puts the accused to trial. The difference between the function of the trial jury and the function of the grand jury is all the difference between deciding a case and merely deciding that a case should be tried.

It hardly lies in the mouth of a defendant whom a fairly chosen trial jury has found guilty beyond reasonable doubt, to say that his indictment is attributable to prejudice. In this case a trial judge heard the prosecution's evidence, ruled it sufficient to warrant a conviction, appellate courts have held the same, and no further question about it is before us. Moreover, a jury admittedly chosen without racial discrimination has heard the prosecution's and defendant's evidence and has held that guilt beyond a reasonable doubt has been proved. That finding, too, has been affirmed on appeal and is not here. Under such circumstances, it is frivolous to contend that any grand jury, however constituted, could have done its duty in any way other than to indict.

Congress has provided means other than release of convicted defendants to enforce this right of the Negro community to participate in grand jury service; and they are, if used, direct and effective remedies to accomplish this purpose.

'(W)hoever, being an officer or other person charged with any duty in the selection or summoning of jurors, excludes or fails to summon any citizen' because of his color or race has committed a federal crime and is subject to a fine of not more than $5,000. 62 Stat. 696, 18 U.S.C. § 243, 18 U.S.C.A. § 243.

Congress has also provided that 'every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceedings for redress.' 17 Stat. 13, 8 U.S.C. § 43, 8 U.S.C.A. § 43. (Emphasis supplied.)

These criminal and civil remedies for discriminatory exclusions from the jury have been almost totally neglected both by the Federal Government and by Negro citizens entitled to sit as jurors. Back in 1878 a state judge was indicted in federal court for violation of the Act and this Court sustained it. Ex parte Commonwealth of Virginia, 100 U.S. 339, 25 L.Ed. 676. That case has been allowed to stand as solitary and neglected authority for direct enforcement of the Negro's right to sit on juries.

Qualified Negroes excluded by discrimination have available, in addition, remedies in courts of equity. I suppose there is no doubt, and if there is this Court can dispel it, that a citizen or a class of citizens unlawfully excluded from jury service could maintain in a federal court an individual or a class action for an injunction or mandamus against the state officers responsible. Cf. Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organizations, 307 U.S. 496, 59 S.Ct. 954, 83 L.Ed. 1423; Douglas v. Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 63 S.Ct. 882, 87 L.Ed. 1324, 146 A.L.R. 81; Morris v. Williams, 8 Cir., 149 F.2d 703; Myerson v. Samuel, D.C., 74 F.Supp. 315; Roles v. School Board, D.C., 61 F.Supp. 395. If the order were evaded or disobeyed, imprisonment for contempt could follow.

It is implicit in the Court's decision that the federal penal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 243, 18 U.S.C.A. § 243, supra, has been violated. So in effect it holds that the crime of discrimination offsets the crime of murder and that the State must start over again, if death of witnesses, loss of evidence or other conditions wrought by time do not prevent.

I do not see how this Court can escape the conclusion that any discrimination in selection of the grand jury in this case, however great the wrong toward qualified Negroes of the community, was harmless to this defendant. To conclude otherwise is to assume that Negroes qualified to sit on a grand jury would refuse even to put to trial a man whom a lawfully chosen trial jury found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Negro's right to be selected for grand jury service is unquestionable and should be directly and uncompromisingly enforced. But I doubt if any good purpose will be served in the long run by identifying the right of the most worthy Negroes to serve on grand juries with the efforts of the least worthy to defer or escape punishment for crime. I cannot believe that those qualified for grand jury service would fail to return a true bill against a murderer because he is a Negro. But unless they would, this defendant has not been harmed.

I would treat this as a case where the irregularity is not shown to have harmed this defendant, and affirm the conviction. But in this and similar cases, I would send a copy of the record to the Department of Justice for investigation as to whether there have been violations of the statute and, if so, for prosecution.


^1  The quoted language appeared in 40 Stat. 1181, 28 U.S.C. § 391 (1940 ed.) This provision was repealed in the revision of the Judicial Code in 1948, Act of June 25, 1948, c. 646, § 39, 62 Stat. 992, 998, apparently because it had been embodied in Rule 52(a), Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 18 U.S.C.A., see Note of the Advisory Committee following Rule 52(a); but was partially reenacted by Act of May 24, 1949, c. 139, § 110, 63 Stat. 105, and now appears as § 2111, 28 U.S.C., Supp. III, 1950, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2111.

^2  17 Stat. 198, 18 U.S.C. § 556 (1940), repealed in the 1948 revision of the Criminal Code, Act of June 25, 1948, c. 645, § 21, 62 Stat. 862, 866, apparently for the reason that it had been incorporated in Rules 6 and 52, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 18 U.S.C.A. See Notes of Advisory Committee following Rules 6 and 52.

^3  48 Stat. 649, 18 U.S.C. § 554a (1940 ed.), repealed by Act of June 25, 1948, c. 645, § 21, 62 Stat. 862, 866, apparently because of its incorporation into Rule 6(b)(2), Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 18 U.S.C.A. See Note of advisory Committee following Rule 6(b)(2).

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).