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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

397 U.S. 759

McMann  v.  Richardson

 Argued: Feb. 24, 1970. --- Decided: May 4, 1970

Mr. Justice BRENNAN, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS and Mr. Justice MARSHALL join, dissenting.

In this case the Court moves yet another step toward the goal of insulating all guilty pleas from subsequent attack no matter what unconstitutional action of government may have induced a particular plea. Respondents alleged in some detail that they were subjected to physical and mental coercion in order to force them to confess; that they succumbed to these pressures; and that because New York provided no constitutionally acceptable procedures for challenging the validity of their confessions in the trial court they had no reasonable alternative to pleading guilty. [1] Respondents' contention, in short, is that their pleas were the product of the State's illegal action. Notwithstanding the possible truth of the claims, the Court holds that respondents are not even entitled to a hearing which would afford them an opportunity to substantiate their allegations. I cannot agree, for it is clear that the result reached by the Court is inconsistent not only with the prior decisions of this Court but also with the position adopted by virtually every court of appeals that has spoken on this issue. [2]

* The basic principle applicable to this case was enunciated for the Court by Mr. Justice Black in Pennsylvania ex rel. Herman v. Claudy, 350 U.S. 116, 118, 76 S.Ct. 223, 224, 100 L.Ed. 126 (1956): '(A) conviction following trial or on a plea of guilty based on a confession extorted by violence or by mental coercion is invalid under the Federal Due Process Clause.' The critical factor in this formulation is that convictions entered on guilty pleas are not valid if they are 'based on' coerced confessions. A defendant who seeks to overturn his guilty plea must therefore demonstrate the existence of a sufficient interrelationship or nexus between the plea and the antecedent confession so that the plea may be said to be infected by the State's prior illegal action. Thus to invalidate a guilty plea more must be shown than the mere existence of a coerced confession. The Court of Appeals so held; respondents do not disagree. The critical question, then, is what elements in addition to the coerced confession must be alleged and proved to demonstrate the invalidity of a guilty plea.

The Court abruptly forecloses any inquiry concerning the impact of an allegedly coerced confession by decreeing that the assistance of 'reasonably competent' counsel insulates a defendant from the effects of a prior illegal confession. However, as the Court tacitly concedes, the absolute rigor of its new rule must be adjusted to accommodate cases such as Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 60 S.Ct. 472, 84 L.Ed. 716 (1940). In that case, the four defendants confessed. Subsequently, three of them pleaded guilty, while the fourth pleaded not guilty and was tried before a jury. Each of the defendants, represented by counsel, stated during the trial that he had confessed and was testifying voluntarily. [3] Notwithstanding this testimony in open court, the proffering of guilty pleas, and representation by counsel, the state courts and this Court as well properly permitted a collateral attack upon the judgments of conviction entered on the guilty pleas.

In explication of Chambers, the Court notes that the coercive circumstances that compelled the confessions may 'have abiding impact and also taint the plea.' Ante at 767. Apparently the Court would permit a defendant who was represented by counsel to attack his conviction collaterally if he could demonstrate that coercive pressures were brought to bear upon him at the very moment he was called to plead. This position is certainly unexceptionable. I cannot agree, however, that the pleading process is constitutionally adequate despite a coerced confession merely because the coercive pressures that compelled the confession ceased prior to the entry of the plea, In short, the 'abiding impact' of the coerced confession may continue to prejudice a defendant's case or unfairly influence his decisions regarding his legal alternatives.

Moreover, our approach in Pennsylvania ex rel. Herman v. Claudy, 350 U.S. 116, 76 S.Ct. 223, 100 L.Ed. 126 (1956), is inconsistent with the absolute rule that the Court adopts today. We there considered whether, under all the circumstances of the case, the pressures brought to bear on the defendant by the State, including the extraction of a coerced confession, were sufficient to render his guilty plea involuntary. While the fact that the defendant was not assisted by counsel was given considerable weight in determining involuntariness, it was hardly the sole critical consideration. Thus the Court's attempt to distinguishe Claudy on the basis of counsel's assistance alone is unpersuasive. I would continue to adhere to the approach adopted in Chambers and Claudy and take into account all of the circumstances surrounding the entry of a plea rather than attach talismanic significance to the presence of counsel.

I concluded in Parker v. North Carolina and Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. at 802, 90 S.Ct. at 1476, 25 L.Ed.2d 793, that 'the legal concept of 'involuntariness' has not been narrowly confined but refers to a surrender of constitutional rights influenced by considerations that the government cannot properly introduce' into the pleading process. In Parker and Brady the 'impermissible factor' introduced by the government was an unconstitutional death penalty scheme; here the improper influence is a coerced confession. In either event the defendant must establish that the unconstitutional influence actually infected the pleading process, that it was a significant factor in his decision to plead guilty. But if he does so, then he is entitled to reversal of the judgment of conviction entered on the plea.

Harrison v. United States, 392 U.S. 219, 88 S.Ct. 2008, 20 L.Ed.2d 1047 (1968), lends additional support to this conclusion. There confessions had been illegally procured from a defendant and then introduced at his trial. At a new trial, after reversal of the defendant's conviction, he objected to the introduction of his testimony from the previous trial on the ground that he had been improperly induced to testify at the former trial by the introduction of the inadmissible confessions. We sustained this contention, noting in part that

'the petitioner testified only after the Government had illegally introduced into evidence three confessions, all wrongfully obtained, and the same principle that prohibits the use of confessions so procured also prohibits the use of any testimony impelled thereby-the fruit of the poisonous tree, to invoke a time-worn metaphor. For the 'essence of a provision forbidding the acquisition of evidence in a certain way is that not merely evidence so acquired shall not be used before the Court but that it shall not be used at all.' Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385, 392, 40 S.Ct. 182, 183, 64 L.Ed. 319.

'* * * The question is not whether the petitioner made a knowing decision to testify, but why. If he did so in order to overcome the impact of confessions illegally obtained and hence improperly introduced, then his testimony was tainted by the same illegality that rendered the confessions themselves inadmissible.' 392 U.S., at 222-223, 88 S.Ct., at 2010. (Emphasis in original.)

The same reasoning is applicable here. That is, if the coerced confession induces a guilty plea, that plea, no less than the surrender of the self-incrimination privilege in Harrison, is the fruit of the State's prior illegal conduct, and thus is vulnerable to attack. [4]

As in Parker and Brady the Court lays great stress upon the ability of counsel to offset the improper influence injected into the pleading process by the State's unconstitutional action. However, here again, the conclusions that the Court draws from the role it assigns to counsel are, in my view, entirely incorrect, for it cannot be blandly assumed, without further discussion, that counsel will be able to render effective assistance to the defendant in freeing him from the burdens of his unconstitutionally extorted confession.

In Parker and Brady there was no action that counsel could take to remove the threat posed by the unconstitutional death penalty scheme. There was no way, in short, to counteract the intrusion of an impermissible factor into the pleading process.

However, where the unconstitutional factor is a coerced confession, it is not necessarily true that counsel's role is so limited. It is a common practice, for example, to hold pretrial hearings or devise other procedures for the purpose of permitting defendants an opportunity to challenge the admissibility of allegedly coerced confessions. If it is assumed that these procedures provide a constitutionally adequate means to attack the validity of the confession, then it must be expected that a defendant who subsequently seeks to overturn his guilty plea will come forward with a persuasive explanation for his failure to invoke those procedures which were readily available to test the validity of his confession.

It does not follow from this that a defendant assisted by counsel can never demonstrate that this failure to invoke the appropriate procedures was justified. The entry of a guilty plea is, essentially, a waiver, or the 'intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right,' Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464, 58 S.Ct. 1019, 1023, 82 L.Ed. 1461 (1938). By pleading guilty the defendant gives up not only his right to a jury trial, Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 89 S.Ct. 1709, 23 L.Ed.2d 274 (1969), but also, in most jurisdictions, the opportunity to challenge the validity of his confession by whatever procedures are provided for that purpose. It is always open to a defendant to establish that his guilty plea was not a constitutionally valid waiver, that he did not deliberately bypass the orderly processes provided to determine the validity of confessions. Cf. Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 438-440, 83 S.Ct. 822, 848-849, 9 L.Ed.2d 837 (1963). Whether or not there has been a deliberate bypass can be determined, of course, only by a consideration of the total circumstances surrounding the entry of each plea. [5]

In the foregoing discussion I have assumed that the State has provided a constitutionally adequate method to challenge an allegedly invalid confession in the trial court. That assumption is not applicable to respondents in this case, however, because, as we held in Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, 84 S.Ct. 1774, 12 L.Ed.2d 908 (1964), the procedure that New York employed at the time their pleas were tendered failed to provide a constitutionally acceptable means to challenge the validity of confessions. Thus, even the most expert appraisal and advice by counsel necessarily had to take into account a procedure for challenging the validity of confessions that was fundamentally defective, but that had nevertheless been approved by this Court in Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 73 S.Ct. 1077, 97 L.Ed. 1522 (1953). Hence the advice of counsel could not remedy or offset the constitutional defect infused into the pleading process. Therefore, respondents are entitled to relief if they can establish that confessions were coerced from them and that their guilty pleas were motivated in significant part by their inability to challenge the validity of the confessions in a constitutionally adequate procedure. [6] By such a showing they would establish a nexus between the coerced confessions and the subsequent pleas and thereby demonstrate that their respective pleas were the product of the State's illegal action.

The Court seeks to avoid the impact of Jackson v. Donno upon pre-Jackson guilty pleas by adding a new and totally unjustified element to the Court's confused pattern of retroactivity rules. Jackson v. Denno has been held to be retroactive, at least in the sense that it requires hearings to determine the voluntariness of pre-Jackson confessions that were introduced at trial. [7] The Court today decides, however, that Jackson's effect is to be limited to situations in which the confession was introduced at trial and is to have no application whatever to guilty pleas. In short, Jackson v. Denno is now held to be only partially retroactive, a wholly novel and unacceptable result.

As I understand the Court's opinion, there are basically three reasons why the Court rejects the contention that the Jackson-Denno defect may unconstitutionally infect the pleading process. The first is the highly formalistic notion that the guilty plea, and not the antecedent confession, is the basis of the judgments against respondents. Of course this is true in the technical sense that the guilty plea is always the legal basis of a judgment of conviction entered thereon. However, this argument hardly disposes adequately of the contention that the plea in turn was at least partially induced, and therefore is tainted, by the fact that no constitutionally adequate procedures existed to test the validity of a highly prejudicial and allegedly coerced confession.

The Court's formalism is symptomatic of the desire to ignore entirely the motivational aspect of a decision to plead guilty. As long as counsel is present when the defendant pleads, the Court is apparently willing to assume that the government may inject virtually any influence into the process of deciding on a plea. However, as I demonstrated in Parker and Brady, this insistence upon ignoring the factors with which the prosecution confronts the defendant before he pleads departs broadly from the manner in which the voluntariness of guilty pleas has traditionally been approached. In short, the critical question is not, as the Court insists, whether respondents knowingly decided to plead guilty but why they made that decision. Cf. Harrison v. United States, 392 U.S. 219, 223, 88 S.Ct. 2008, 2010, 20 L.Ed.2d 1047 (1968).

Secondly, the Court views the entry of the guilty pleas as waivers of objections to the allegedly coerced confessions. For the reasons previously stated, I do not believe that the pleas were legally voluntary if respondents' allegations are proved. Nor were the pleas the relinquishment of a known right, for it was only when Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 73 S.Ct. 1077, 97 L.Ed. 1522 (1953), was overruled by Jackson v. Denno that it became clear that the New York procedure was constitutionally inadequate. Thus there is no sense in which respondents deliberately by-passed or 'waived' state procedures constitutionally adequate to adjudicate their coerced-confession claims. See Moreno v. Beto, 415 F.2d 154 (C.A.5th Cir. 1969); cf. Smith v. Yeager, 393 U.S. 122, 89 S.Ct. 277, 21 L.Ed.2d 246 (1968).

Finally, the Court takes the position, in effect, that the defect in the Stein-approved New York procedure was not very great that the procedure was only a little bit unconstitutional-and hence that it is too speculative to inquire whether the difference between the pre-Jackson and post-Jackson procedures would, in a particular case, alter the advice given by counsel concerning the desirability of a plea. If, indeed, the deficiency in the pre-Jackson procedure was not very great, then it is difficult to undestand why we found it necessary to invalidate the procedure and, particularly, why it was imperative to apply the Jackson decision retroactively. I, for one, have never thought Jackson v. Denno is so trivial, that it deals with procedural distinctions of such insignificance that they would necessarily make no difference in the plea advice given to a defendant by his attorney. To the contrary, the extent to which the constitutional defect in the pre-Jackson-Denno procedure actually infected the pleading process cannot be determined by a priori pronouncements by this Court; rather, its effect can be evaluated only after a factual inquiry into the circumstances motivating particular pleas.

Despite the disclaimers to the contrary, what is essentially involved both in the instant case and in Brady and Parker is nothing less than the determination of the Court to preserve the sanctity of virtually all judgments obtained by means of guilty pleas. There is no other adequate explanation for the surprising notion of partial retroactivity that the Court today propounds. An approach that shrinks from giving effect to the clear implications of our prior decisions by drawing untenable distinctions may have its appeal, but it hardly furthers the goal of principled decisionmaking. Thus, I am constrained to agree with the concurring judge in the Court of Appeals that it is

'the rankest unfairness, and indeed a denigration of the rule of law, to recognize the infirmity of the pre-Jackson v. Denno procedure for challenging the legality of a confession in the case of prisoners who went to trial but to deny access to the judicial process to those who improperly pleaded guilty merely because the state would have more difficulty in affording a new trial to them.' 409 F.2d, at 1027.

Lest it be thought that my views would render the criminal process 'less effective in protecting society against those who have made it impossible to live today in safety,' Harrison v. United States, 392 U.S. 219, 235, 88 S.Ct. 2008, 2016, 2017, 20 L.Ed.2d 1047 (White, J., dissenting), I emphasize again that the only issue involved in this case is whether respondents are entitled to a hearing on their claims that coerced confessions and a procedural device that we condemned as unconstitutional deterred them from exercising their constitutional rights. Whether or not these allegations have bases in fact is not before us, for these individuals have never been afforded a judicial forum for the presentation of their claims. In these circumstances, I would not simply slam shut the door of the courthouse in their faces.

I agree with the Court of Appeals that a hearing is required for the coercedconfession claims presented in these cases. We have, of course, held that a post-conviction hearing must be afforded to defendants whose allegations of constitutional deprivation raise factual issues and are neither 'vague, conclusory, or palpably incredible,' Machibroda v. United States, 368 U.S. 487, 495, 82 S.Ct. 510, 514, 7 L.Ed.2d 473 (1962), nor 'patently frivolous or false,' Pennsylvania ex rel. Herman v. Claudy, 350 U.S. 116, 119, 76 S.Ct. 223, 225, 100 L.Ed. 126 (1956). [8] Respondents have raised at least three factual issues that the record in its present form does not resolve: (1) whether confessions were obtained from them; (2) whether these confessions, if given, were coerced; and (3) whether respondents had a justifiable reason for their failure to challenge the validity of the confessions-more specifically, whether the confessions, together with the Jackson-Denno defect in New York's procedures, influenced in significant part the decisions to plead guilty. As to each of these issues, respondents of course bear the burden of proof.

Respondents alleged in some detail that they had been coerced by the police into confessing. They also alleged that the Jackson-Denno defect in the state procedures rendered futile any attempt to challenge the confessions in the state trial court. [9] The Court of Appeals noted that, in the ordinary case, additional supporting material, such as an affidavit from the attorney who represented the petitioner, should be appended to his habeas corpus petition. Without elaboration, however, the Court of Appeals concluded that no material in corroboration was necessary in this case.

To be sure, it is difficult, though not impossible, to believe that without any corroborative evidence a petitioner would ultimately succeed with a sophisticated argument such as the contention that a coerced confession, coupled with the Jackson-Denno defect, induced his guilty plea. In this connection, the views of the defense attorney when the plea was entered are particularly important because in the ordinary case counsel is in a good position to appraise the factors that actually entered into the decision to plead guilty. As a technical matter of pleading, however, I would not absolutely require that a petitioner, particularly one who is proceeding pro se, accompany his petition with extensive supporting materials. [10] It is of course prudent for petitioners who raise a claim such as the one presented in the instant case to append a statement from counsel, or at least an explanation of why such a statement was not procured, for the petitioner who does not do so takes a considerable risk that his petition will be denied as vague, conclusory or frivolous. [11]

The respondents in this case clearly raised the Jackson-Denno issue in their petitions to the District Court. Furthermore, this Court has not affected the judgment below insofar as it requires hearings for these respondents on issues other than their coerced-confession claims. In these circumstances, I would not disturb that portion of the Court of Appeals' order that requires the District Court to consider the merits of respondents' coerced-confession allegations.

Accordingly, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


^1  There are additional allegations involved in this case, including Richardson's claim that he was ineffectively represented by counsel when he entered his plea and Dash's contention that he was threatened by the trial judge with imposition of the statutory maximum sentence (60 years) if he elected to stand trial and did not prevail. I understand that the Court does not disturb the Court of Appeals' holding that a hearing is required to consider these additional allegations.

^2  The Court does not deny that the decision of the Court of Appeals in the instant case is in complete harmony with the decisions of numerous other courts that have considered the same or similar issues. See, e.g., Moreno v. Beto, 415 F.2d 154 (C.A.5th Cir. 1969); United States ex rel. McCloud v. Rundle, 402 F.2d 853 (C.A.3d Cir. 1968); Kott v. Green, 387 F.2d 136 (C.A.6th Cir. 1967); Reed v. Henderson, 385 F.2d 995 (C.A.6th Cir. 1967); United States ex rel. Collins v. Maroney, 382 F.2d 547 (C.A.3d Cir. 1967); Smiley v. Wilson, 378 F.2d 144 (C.A.9th Cir. 1967); Carpenter v. Wainwright, 372 F.2d 940 (C.A.5th Cir. 1967); Doran v. Wilson, 369 F.2d 505 (C.A.9th Cir. 1966); White v. Pepersack, 352 F.2d 470 (C.A.4th Cir. 1965); Zachery v. Hale, 286 F.Supp. 237 (D.C.M.D.Ala.1968); United States ex rel. Cuevas v. Rundle, 258 F.Supp. 647 (D.C.E.D.Pa.1966); People v. Spencer, 66 Cal.2d 158, 57 Cal.Rptr. 163, 424 P.2d 715 (1967); Commonwealth v. Baity, 428 Pa. 306, 237 A.2d 172 (1968).

^3  '(E)ach of the defendants testified on the trial that the confessions were freely and voluntarily made that the respective statements of each made upon the trial was the free and voluntary statement of such defendant as a witness in his behalf.' Chambers v. State, 113 Fla. 786, 792, 152 So. 437, 438 (1934), on subsequent appeal, 136 Fla. 568, 187 So. 156 (1939), rev'd, 309 U.S. 227, 60 S.Ct. 472, 84 L.Ed. 716 (1940).

^4  Indeed, one of the dissenting opinions in Harrison concludes that '(s) imilarly, an inadmissible confession preceding a plea of guilty would taint the plea.' 392 U.S., at 234, 88 S.Ct., at 2016 (White, J., dissenting). In response to this suggestion, the Court noted that 'we decide here only a case in which the prosecution illegally introduced the defendant's confession in evidence against him at trial in its case-in-chief.' 392 U.S., at 223 n. 9, 88 S.Ct., at 2011. Of course, in Harrison we did consider a case in which evidence had been introduced at trial. It hardly follows, however, that the fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree rationale has no application apart from the narrow confines of the Harrison factual context. See generally Fahy v. Connecticut, 375 U.S. 85, 84 S.Ct. 229, 11 L.Ed.2d 171 (1963); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 83 S.Ct. 407, 9 L.Ed.2d 441 (1963); Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 60 S.Ct. 266, 84 L.Ed. 307 (1939).

There are factual differences between Harrison and the instant case, but they are insufficient to undermine the analogy. For example, in Harrison the inadmissible confessions had actually been used in proceedings against the defendant, whereas here no more is involved than the potential use of the coerced confessions. However, confessions have traditionally been considered extremely valuable evidentiary material, and, in the ordinary course of events, it is not to be expected that the prosecution would, on its own initiative, refrain from attempting to introduce a relevant confession. Of course, when a guilty plea is attacked on the ground that it was induced by an involuntary confession, it is always open to the prosecution to establish that there was no confession, that any confession was not coerced, or that the prosecution had decided not to use the confession against the defendant and had communicated this fact to him.

Moreover, it is perhaps not as clear in the instant case as it was in Harrison that the prosecution's illegality infected the subsequent proceedings involving the respective defendants. In Harrison, the defense attorney had initially announced that the defendant would not testify, and the defendant did in fact take the stand only after the prosecution had introduced his confessions. In that circumstance the burden was appropriately placed upon the prosecution to rebut the clear inference that the inadmissible confessions induced the subsequent testimony. By contrast, in the instant case we are dealing with guilty pleas that are usually the culmination of a decision-making process in which the defendant has taken into account numerous factors. It can therefore hardly be established on the basis of mere allegations that, in a given case, a coerced confession induced the guilty plea. This factual difference indicates no more, however, than that the respondents here may have a more difficult time than the petitioner in Harrison in substantiating their respective claims.

^5  If the procedures for challenging the validity of confessions are constitutionally adequate, then a persuasive justification for the failure to invoke them does not arise from the fear that a confession, erroneously or otherwise, will be determined to be voluntary. If this were not true, then no guilty plea could constitute an effective waiver, for the risk of error or adverse result is inherent in every criminal proceeding, and it would be open to every defendant to contend that this risk induced his guilty plea.

^6  The Court of Appeals held that a plea of guilty was not voluntary 'if the plea was substantially motivated by a coerced confession the validity of which (the defendant) was unable, for all practical purposes, to contest.' 409 F.2d, at 1023. I would accept this formulation with the understanding that a 'substantial' motivating factor is any one which is not merely de minimis. Ordinarily, a decision to plead guilty is the result of numerous considerations. As long as a defendant was in fact motivated in significant part by the influence of an unconstitutionally obtained confession that he had no adequate means to challenge, I would relieve him of the consequences of his guilty plea.

^7  See, e.g., Johnson v. New Jersey, 384 U.S. 719, 727-728, 86 S.Ct. 1772, 1777-1778, 16 L.Ed.2d 882 (1966); Tehan v. United States ex rel. Shott, 382 U.S. 406, 416, 86 S.Ct. 459, 465, 15 L.Ed.2d 453 (1966); Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U.S. 618, 639 and n. 20, 85 S.Ct. 1731, 1743, 14 L.Ed.2d 601 (1965).

^8  Respondents have never had a hearing in the state courts on their coerced-confession claims because the state courts rejected their contentions on the pleadings. In these circumstances, the Court of Appeals properly instructed the District Court to afford the State a reasonable time to proceed with its own hearings, if it be so advised.

^9  For example, respondent Dash stated the following in his petition to the District Court:

'The futility of relator's position is more clearly seen when this Court considers the fact, that the only choice remaining to him-beside the entry of the plea of guilty to a crime that he had not committed-was to proceed to trial in the hope of challenging the admissibility of the alleged coerced confession. For it was only in the case of Jackson v. Denno * * * that the Court recognized the insoluble plight of a defendant in New York, faced with the decision whether to challenge the admissibility of a confession, had in violation of the United States Constitution. Relator had no such remedy when he was faced with this situation.'

Respondent Williams' petition contains similar references to Jackson v. Denno. Respondent Richardson's principal claim relates to the adequacy of the legal assistance afforded him. He concedes that the pre-Jackson-Denno procedure played no role in his decision to plead guilty.

^10  See, e.g., Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 292, 68 S.Ct. 1049, 1063, 92 L.Ed. 1356 (1948).

^11  See, e.g., United States ex rel. Nixon v. Follette, 299 F.Supp. 253 (D.C.S.D.N.Y.1969).

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