Fundamental Cases in Procedural Law
Adam J. McKee
In the spring of 1966, within the period of a fortnight, a series of armed robberies occurred in Mobile, Alabama. The victims, in each case, were local shopkeepers open at night who were forced by a gunman to hand over money. While robbing one grocery store, the assailant fired his gun once, sending a bullet through a door into the ceiling. A few days earlier in a drugstore, the robber had allowed his gun to discharge in such a way that the bullet, on ricochet from the floor, struck a customer in the leg. Shortly thereafter, a local grand jury returned five indictments against petitioner, a 27-year-old Negro, for common-law robbery—an offense punishable in Alabama by death.
Before the matter came to trial, the court determined that petitioner was indigent and appointed counsel to represent him. Three days later, at his arraignment, petitioner pleaded guilty to all five indictments. So far as the record shows, the judge asked no questions of petitioner concerning his plea, and petitioner did not address the court.
Trial strategy may of course make a plea of guilty seem the desirable course. But the record is wholly silent on that point and throws no light on it.
Alabama provides that when a defendant pleads guilty, “the court must cause the punishment to be determined by a jury” (except where it is required to be fixed by the court) and may “cause witnesses to be examined, to ascertain the character of the offense.” In the present case a trial of that dimension was held, the prosecution presenting its case largely through eyewitness testimony. Although counsel for petitioner engaged in cursory cross-examination, petitioner neither testified himself nor presented testimony concerning his character and background. There was nothing to indicate that he had a prior criminal record.
In instructing the jury, the judge stressed that petitioner had pleaded guilty in five cases of robbery, defined as “the felonious taking of money . . . from another against his will . . . by violence or by putting him in fear . . . carrying from ten years minimum in the penitentiary to the supreme penalty of death by electrocution.” The jury, upon deliberation, found petitioner guilty and sentenced him severally to die on each of the five indictments.
Taking an automatic appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, petitioner argued that a sentence of death for common-law robbery was cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the Federal Constitution, a suggestion which that court unanimously rejected. On their own motion, however, four of the seven justices discussed the constitutionality of the process by which the trial judge had accepted petitioner’s guilty plea. From the order affirming the trial court, three justices dissented on the ground that the record was inadequate to show that petitioner had intelligently and knowingly pleaded guilty. The fourth member concurred separately, conceding that “a trial judge should not accept a guilty plea unless he has determined that such a plea was voluntarily and knowingly entered by the defendant,” but refusing “for aught appearing” “to presume that the trial judge failed to do his duty.” We granted certiorari.
Respondent does not suggest that we lack jurisdiction to review the voluntary character of petitioner’s guilty plea because he failed to raise that federal question below and the state court failed to pass upon it. But the question was raised on oral argument and we conclude that it is properly presented. The very Alabama statute that provides automatic appeal in capital cases also requires the reviewing court to comb the record for “any error prejudicial to the appellant, even though not called to our attention in brief of counsel.” The automatic appeal statute “is the only provision under the Plain Error doctrine of which we are aware in Alabama criminal appellate review.” In the words of the Alabama Supreme Court:
“Perhaps it is well to note that in reviewing a death case under the automatic appeal statute, . . . we may consider any testimony that was seriously prejudicial to the rights of the appellant and may reverse thereon, even though no lawful objection or exception was made thereto. Our review is not limited to the matters brought to our attention in brief of counsel.”
It was error, plain on the face of the record, for the trial judge to accept petitioner’s guilty plea without an affirmative showing that it was intelligent and voluntary. That error, under Alabama procedure, was properly before the court below and considered explicitly by a majority of the justices and is properly before us on review.
A plea of guilty is more than a confession which admits that the accused did various acts; it is itself a conviction; nothing remains but to give judgment and determine punishment. Admissibility of a confession must be based on a “reliable determination on the voluntariness issue which satisfies the constitutional rights of the defendant.” The requirement that the prosecution spread on the record the prerequisites of a valid waiver is no constitutional innovation. In Carnley v. Cochran, we dealt with a problem of waiver of the right to counsel, a Sixth Amendment right. We held: “Presuming waiver from a silent record is impermissible. The record must show, or there must be an allegation and evidence which show, that an accused was offered counsel but intelligently and understandingly rejected the offer. Anything less is not waiver.”
We think that the same standard must be applied to determining whether a guilty plea is voluntarily made. For, as we have said, a plea of guilty is more than an admission of conduct; it is a conviction. Ignorance, incomprehension, coercion, terror, inducements, subtle or blatant threats might be a perfect cover-up of unconstitutionality. The question of an effective waiver of a federal constitutional right in a proceeding is of course governed by federal standards.
Several federal constitutional rights are involved in a waiver that takes place when a plea of guilty is entered in a state criminal trial. First, is the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment and applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth. Second, is the right to trial by jury. Third, is the right to confront one’s accusers. We cannot presume a waiver of these three important federal rights from a silent record.
What is at stake for an accused facing death or imprisonment demands the utmost solicitude of which courts are capable in canvassing the matter with the accused to make sure he has a full understanding of what the plea connotes and of its consequence. When the judge discharges that function, he leaves a record adequate for any review that may be later sought, and forestalls the spin-off of collateral proceedings that seek to probe murky memories.
The three dissenting justices in the Alabama Supreme Court stated the law accurately when they concluded that there was reversible error “because the record does not disclose that the defendant voluntarily and understandingly entered his pleas of guilty.”
Last Modified: 08/21/2019