JACKSON V. DENNO, 378 U.S. 368 (1964)

Fundamental Cases in Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, Jackson, has filed a petition for habeas corpus in the Federal District Court asserting that his conviction for murder in the New York courts is invalid because it was founded upon a confession not properly determined to be voluntary. The writ was denied, the Court of Appeals affirmed, and we granted certiorari to consider fundamental questions about the constitutionality of the New York procedure governing the admissibility of a confession alleged to be involuntary.


On June 14, 1960, at about 1 a. m., petitioner, Jackson, and Nora Elliott entered a Brooklyn hotel where Miss Elliott registered for both of them. After telling Miss Elliott to leave, which she did, Jackson drew a gun and took money from the room clerk. He ordered the clerk and several other people into an upstairs room and left the hotel, only to encounter Miss Elliott and later a policeman on the street. A struggle with the latter followed, in the course of which both men drew guns. The policeman was fatally wounded and petitioner was shot twice in the body. He managed to hail a cab, however, which took him to the hospital.

A detective questioned Jackson at about 2 a. m., soon after his arrival at the hospital. Jackson, when asked for his name, said, “Nathan Jackson, I shot the colored cop. I got the drop on him.” He also admitted the robbery at the hotel. According to the detective, Jackson was in “strong” condition despite his wounds.

Jackson was given 50 milligrams of Demerol and 1/50 of a grain of scopolamine at 3:55 a. m. Immediately thereafter an Assistant District Attorney, in the presence of police officers and hospital personnel, questioned Jackson, the interrogation being recorded by a stenographer. Jackson, who has been shot in the liver and lung, had by this time lost about 500 cc. of blood. Jackson again admitted the robbery in the hotel, and then said, “Look, I can’t go on.” But in response to further questions he admitted shooting the policeman and having fired the first shot.  The interview was completed at 4 a. m. An operation upon petitioner was begun at 5 a. m. and completed at 8 a. m.

Jackson and Miss Elliott were indicted for murder in the first degree and were tried together. The statements made by Jackson, both at 2 and 3:55 a. m., were introduced in evidence without objection by Jackson’s counsel. Jackson took the stand in his own defense. His account of the robbery and of the shooting of the policeman differed in some important respects from his confession. According to Jackson’s testimony, there was a substantial interval of time between his leaving the hotel and the shooting, and the policeman attempted to draw his gun first and fired the first shot. As to the questioning at the hospital, Jackson recalled that he was in pain and gasping for breath at the time and was refused water and told he would not be let alone until the police had the answers they wanted. He knew that he had been interrogated but could remember neither the questions nor the answers.

To counter Jackson’s suggestion that he had been pressured into answering questions, the State offered the testimony of the attending physician and of several other persons. They agreed that Jackson was refused water, but because of the impending operation rather than his refusal to answer questions. On cross-examination of the doctor, Jackson’s counsel, with the help of the hospital records, elicited the fact that Demerol and scopolamine were administered to Jackson immediately before his interrogation. But any effect of these drugs on Jackson during the interrogation was denied.

Although Jackson’s counsel did not specifically object to the admission of the confession initially, the trial court indicated its awareness that Jackson’s counsel was questioning the circumstances under which Jackson was interrogated.

In his closing argument, Jackson’s counsel did not ask for an acquittal but for a verdict of second-degree murder or manslaughter. Counsel’s main effort was to negative the premeditation and intent necessary to first-degree murder and to separate the robbery felony from the killing. He made much of the testimony tending to show a substantial interval between leaving the hotel and the beginning of the struggle with the policeman. The details of that struggle and the testimony indicating the policeman fired the first shot were also stressed.

Consistent with the New York practice where a question has been raised about the voluntariness of a confession, the trial court submitted that issue to the jury along with the other issues in the case. The jury was told that if it found the confession involuntary, it was to disregard it entirely, and determine guilt or innocence solely from the other evidence in the case; alternatively, if it found the confession voluntary, it was to determine its truth or reliability and afford it weight accordingly.

The jury found Jackson guilty of murder in the first degree, Miss Elliott of manslaughter in the first degree. Jackson was sentenced to death, Miss Elliott to a prison term. Jackson’s conviction was affirmed by the New York Court of Appeals, its remittitur being amended to show that it had necessarily passed upon the voluntariness of the confession and had found that Jackson’s constitutional rights had not been violated. Certiorari was denied here. Jackson then filed a petition for habeas corpus, claiming that the New York procedure for determining the voluntariness of a confession was unconstitutional and that in any event his confession was involuntary. After hearing argument and examining the state court record the District Court denied the petition without holding an evidentiary hearing. Indicating that it is the trier of fact who must determine the truth of the testimony of prisoner and official alike and resolve conflicts in the testimony, the court found “no clear and conclusive proof that these statements were extorted from him, or that they were given involuntarily.” Nor was any constitutional infirmity found in the New York procedure. The Court of Appeals, after noting the conflicting testimony concerning the coercion issue and apparently accepting the State’s version of the facts, affirmed the conviction.


It is now axiomatic that a defendant in a criminal case is deprived of due process of law if his conviction is founded, in whole or in part, upon an involuntary confession, without regard for the truth or falsity of the confession, and even though there is ample evidence aside from the confession to support the conviction. Equally clear is the defendant’s constitutional right at some stage in the proceedings to object to the use of the confession and to have a fair hearing and a reliable determination on the issue of voluntariness, a determination uninfluenced by the truth or falsity of the confession. In our view, the New York procedure employed in this case did not afford a reliable determination of the voluntariness of the confession offered in evidence at the trial, did not adequately protect Jackson’s right to be free of a conviction based upon a coerced confession and therefore cannot withstand constitutional attack under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We therefore reverse the judgment below denying the writ of habeas corpus.


Under the New York rule, the trial judge must make a preliminary determination regarding a confession offered by the prosecution and exclude it if in no circumstances could the confession be deemed voluntary. But if the evidence presents a fair question as to its voluntariness, as where certain facts bearing on the issue are in dispute or where reasonable men could differ over the inferences to be drawn from undisputed facts, the judge “must receive the confession and leave to the jury, under proper instructions, the ultimate determination of its voluntary character and also its truthfulness.” If an issue of coercion is presented, the judge may not resolve conflicting evidence or arrive at his independent appraisal of the voluntariness of the confession, one way or the other. These matters he must leave to the jury.

This procedure has a significant impact upon the defendant’s Fourteenth Amendment rights. In jurisdictions following the orthodox rule, under which the judge himself solely and finally determines the voluntariness of the confession, or those following the Massachusetts procedure, under which the jury passes on voluntariness only after the judge has fully and independently resolved the issue against the accused, the judge’s conclusions are clearly evident from the record since he either admits the confession into evidence if it is voluntary or rejects it if involuntary. Moreover, his findings upon disputed issues of fact are expressly stated or may be ascertainable from the record. In contrast, the New York jury returns only a general verdict upon the ultimate question of guilt or innocence. It is impossible to discover whether the jury found the confession voluntary and relied upon it, or involuntary and supposedly ignored it. Nor is there any indication of how the jury resolved disputes in the evidence concerning the critical facts underlying the coercion issue. Indeed, there is nothing to show that these matters were resolved at all, one way or the other.

These uncertainties inherent in the New York procedure were aptly described by the Court in Stein v. New York:


“Petitioners suffer a disadvantage inseparable from the issues they raise in that this procedure does not produce any definite, open and separate decision of the confession issue. Being cloaked by the general verdict, petitioners do not know what result they really are attacking here. . . .

This method of trying the coercion issue to a jury is not informative as to its disposition. Sometimes the record permits a guess or inference, but where other evidence of guilt is strong a reviewing court cannot learn whether the final result was to receive or to reject the confessions as evidence of guilt. Perhaps a more serious, practical cause of dissatisfaction is the absence of any assurance that the confessions did not serve as makeweights in a compromise verdict, some jurors accepting the confessions to overcome lingering doubt of guilt, others rejecting them but finding their doubts satisfied by other evidence, and yet others or perhaps all never reaching a separate and definite conclusion as to the confessions but returning an unanalytical and impressionistic verdict based on all they had heard.”


A defendant objecting to the admission of a confession is entitled to a fair hearing in which both the underlying factual issues and the voluntariness of his confession are actually and reliably determined. But did the jury in Jackson’s case make these critical determinations, and if it did, what were these determinations?

Notwithstanding these acknowledged difficulties inherent in the New York procedure, the Court in Stein found no constitutional deprivation to the defendant. The Court proceeded to this conclusion on the basis of alternative assumptions regarding the manner in which the jury might have resolved the coercion, issue. Either the jury determined the disputed issues of fact against the accused, found the confession voluntary and therefore properly relied upon it; or it found the contested facts in favor of the accused and deemed the confession involuntary, in which event it disregarded the confession in accordance with its instructions and adjudicated guilt based solely on the other evidence. On either assumption the Court found no error in the judgment of the state court.

We disagree with the Court in Stein; for in addition to sweeping aside its own express doubts that the jury acted at all in the confession matter the Court, we think, failed to take proper account of the dangers to an accused’s rights under either of the alternative assumptions.

On the assumption that the jury found the confession voluntary, the Court concluded that it could properly do so. But this judgment was arrived at only on the further assumptions that the jury had actually found the disputed issues of fact against the accused and that these findings were reliably arrived at in accordance with considerations that are permissible and proper under federal law. These additional assumptions, in our view, were unsound.

The New York jury is at once given both the evidence going to voluntariness and all of the corroborating evidence showing that the confession is true and that the defendant committed the crime. The jury may therefore believe the confession and believe that the defendant has committed the very act with which he is charged, a circumstance which may seriously distort judgment of the credibility of the accused and assessment of the testimony concerning the critical facts surrounding his confession.

In those cases where without the confession the evidence is insufficient, the defendant should not be convicted if the jury believes the confession but finds it to be involuntary. The jury, however, may find it difficult to understand the policy forbidding reliance upon a coerced, but true, confession, a policy which has divided this Court in the past and an issue which may be reargued in the jury room. That a trustworthy confession must also be voluntary if it is to be used at all, generates natural and potent pressure to find it voluntary. Otherwise the guilty defendant goes free. Objective consideration of the conflicting evidence concerning the circumstances of the confession becomes difficult and the implicit findings become suspect.

The danger that matters pertaining to the defendant’s guilt will infect the jury’s findings of fact bearing upon voluntariness, as well as its conclusion upon that issue itself, is sufficiently serious to preclude their unqualified acceptance upon review in this Court, regardless of whether there is or is not sufficient other evidence to sustain a finding of guilt. In Jackson’s case, he confessed to having fired the first shot, a matter very relevant to the charge of first degree murder. The jury also heard the evidence of eyewitnesses to the shooting. Jackson’s testimony going to his physical and mental condition when the confessed and to the events which took place at that time, bearing upon the issue of voluntariness, was disputed by the prosecution. The obvious and serious danger is that the jury disregarded or disbelieved Jackson’s testimony pertaining to the confession because it believed he had done precisely what he was charged with doing.

The failure to inquire into the reliability of the jury’s resolution of disputed factual considerations underlying its conclusion as to voluntariness— findings which were afforded decisive weight by the Court in Stein—was not a mere oversight but stemmed from the premise underlying the Stein opinion that the exclusion of involuntary confessions is constitutionally required solely because of the inherent untrustworthiness of a coerced confession. It followed from this premise that a reliable or true confession need not be rejected as involuntary and that evidence corroborating the truth or falsity of the confession and the guilt or innocence of the accused is indeed pertinent to the determination of the coercion issue.  This approach in Stein drew a sharp dissent from Mr. Justice Frankfurter, who admonished that considerations of truth or falsity of the admissions are to be put aside in determining the question of coercion:


“This issue must be decided without regard to the confirmation of details in the confession by reliable other evidence. The determination must not be influenced by an irrelevant feeling of certitude that the accused is guilty of the crime to which he confessed.”

This underpinning of Stein proved to be a short-lived departure from prior views of the Court, and was unequivocally put to rest in Rogers v. Richmond, where it was held that the reliability of a confession has nothing to do with its voluntariness—proof that a defendant committed the act with which he is charged and to which he has confessed is not to be considered when deciding whether a defendant’s will has been overborne. Reflecting his dissent in Stein, Mr. Justice Frankfurter wrote for a unanimous Court on this issue in Rogers:


“The weight attributed to the impermissible consideration of truth and falsity . . . entering into the Connecticut trial court’s deliberations concerning the admissibility of the confessions, may well have distorted, by putting in improper perspective, even its findings of historical fact. Any consideration of this `reliability’ element was constitutionally precluded, precisely because the force which it carried with the trial judge cannot be known.”


It is now inescapably clear that the Fourteenth Amendment forbids the use of involuntary confessions not only because of the probable unreliability of confessions that are obtained in a manner deemed coercive, but also because of the “strongly felt attitude of our society that important human values are sacrificed where an agency of the government, in the course of securing a conviction, wrings a confession out of an accused against his will,” and because of “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.” Because it did not recognize this “complex of values” underlying the exclusion of involuntary confessions, Stein also ignored the pitfalls in giving decisive weight to the jury’s assumed determination of the facts surrounding the disputed confession.

Under the New York procedure, the evidence given the jury inevitably injects irrelevant and impermissible considerations of truthfulness of the confession into the assessment of voluntariness. Indeed, the jury is told to determine the truthfulness of the confession in assessing its probative value.  As a consequence, it cannot be assumed, as the Stein Court assumed, that the jury reliably found the facts against the accused.  This unsound assumption undermines Stein’s authority as a precedent and its view on the constitutionality of the New York procedure.

The admixture of reliability and voluntariness in the considerations of the jury would itself entitle a defendant to further proceedings in any case in which the essential facts are disputed, for we cannot determine how the jury resolved these issues and will not assume that they were reliably and properly resolved against the accused. And it is only a reliable determination on the voluntariness issue which satisfies the constitutional rights of the defendant and which would permit the jury to consider the confession in adjudicating guilt or innocence.

But we do not rest on this ground alone, for the other alternative hypothesized in Stein—that the jury found the confession involuntary and disregarded it—is equally unacceptable. Under the New York procedure, the fact of a defendant’s confession is solidly implanted in the jury’s mind, for it has not only heard the confession, but it has been instructed to consider and judge its voluntariness and is in position to assess whether it is true or false. If it finds the confession involuntary, does the jury—indeed, can it—then disregard the confession in accordance with its instructions? If there are lingering doubts about the sufficiency of the other evidence, does the jury unconsciously lay them to rest by resort to the confession? Will uncertainty about the sufficiency of the other evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt actually result in acquittal when the jury knows the defendant has given a truthful confession?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove that a confession which a jury has found to be involuntary has nevertheless influenced the verdict or that its finding of voluntariness, if this is the course it took, was affected by the other evidence showing the confession was true. But the New York procedure poses substantial threats to a defendant’s constitutional rights to have an involuntary confession entirely disregarded and to have the coercion issue fairly and reliably determined. These hazards we cannot ignore.

As reflected in the cases in this Court, police conduct requiring exclusion of a confession has evolved from acts of clear physical brutality to more refined and subtle methods of overcoming a defendant’s will.


“This Court has recognized that coercion can be mental as well as physical, and that the blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition. A number of cases have demonstrated, if demonstration were needed, that the efficiency of the rack and the thumbscrew can be matched, given the proper subject, by more sophisticated modes of persuasion.”


Expanded concepts of fairness in obtaining confessions have been accompanied by a correspondingly greater complexity in determining whether an accused’s will has been overborne—facts are frequently disputed, questions of credibility are often crucial, and inferences to be drawn from established facts are often determinative. The overall determination of the voluntariness of a confession has thus become an exceedingly sensitive task, one that requires facing the issue squarely, in illuminating isolation and unbeclouded by other issues and the effect of extraneous but prejudicial evidence. Where pure factual considerations are an important ingredient, which is true in the usual case, appellate review in this Court is, as a practical matter, an inadequate substitute for a full and reliable determination of the voluntariness issue in the trial court and the trial court’s determination, pro tanto, takes on an increasing finality.

The procedures used in the trial court to arrive at its conclusions on the coercion issue progressively take on added significance as the actual measure of the protection afforded a defendant under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against the use of involuntary confessions. These procedures must, therefore, be fully adequate to insure a reliable and clear-cut determination of the voluntariness of the confession, including the resolution of disputed facts upon which the voluntariness issue may depend. In our view, the New York procedure falls short of satisfying these constitutional requirements. Stein v. New York is overruled.


We turn to consideration of the disposition of this case. Since Jackson has not been given an adequate hearing upon the voluntariness of his confession he must be given one, the remaining inquiry being the scope of that hearing and the court which should provide it.

This is not a case where the facts concerning the circumstances surrounding the confession are undisputed and the task is only to judge the voluntariness of the confession based upon the clearly established facts and in accordance with proper constitutional standards. Here there are substantial facts in dispute: Jackson said that he was in pain from his wounds, gasping for breath and unable to talk long. A state witness described Jackson as in strong condition despite his wounds. According to Jackson, the police told him he could have no water and would not be left alone until he gave the answers the authorities desired.

These verbal threats were denied by the State. Whereas Jackson claimed his will was affected by the drugs administered to him, the State’s evidence was that the drugs neither had nor could have had any effect upon him at all. Whether Jackson is entitled to relief depends upon how these facts are resolved, for if the State is to be believed we cannot say that Jackson’s confession was involuntary, whereas if Jackson’s version of the facts is accepted the confession was involuntary and inadmissible.

As we have already said, Jackson is entitled to a reliable resolution of these evidentiary conflicts. If this case were here upon direct review of Jackson’s conviction, we could not proceed with review on the assumption that these disputes had been resolved in favor of the State for as we have held we are not only unable to tell how the jury resolved these matters but, even if the jury did resolve them against Jackson, its findings were infected with impermissible considerations and accordingly cannot be controlling here. Likewise, a federal habeas corpus court, in the face of the unreliable state court procedure, would not be justified in disposing of the petition solely upon the basis of the undisputed portions of the record. At the very least, Townsend v. Sain would require a full evidentiary hearing to determine the factual context in which Jackson’s confession was given.

However, we think that the further proceedings to which Jackson is entitled should occur initially in the state courts rather than in the federal habeas corpus court. Jackson’s trial did not comport with constitutional standards and he is entitled to a determination of the voluntariness of his confession in the state courts in accordance with valid state procedures; the State is also entitled to make this determination before this Court considers the case on direct review or a petition for habeas corpus is filed in a Federal District Court. This was the disposition in Rogers v. Richmond, where, in a case coming to this Court from a denial of a habeas corpus, the Court ascertained a trial error of constitutional dimension:

“A state defendant should have the opportunity to have all issues which may be determinative of his guilt tried by a state judge or a state jury under appropriate state procedures which conform to the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. . .. The State, too, has a weighty interest in having valid federal constitutional criteria applied in the administration of its criminal law by its own courts and juries. To require a federal judge exercising habeas corpus jurisdiction to attempt to combine within himself the proper functions of judge and jury in a state trial – to ask him to approximate the sympathies of the defendant’s peers or to make the rulings which the state trial judge might make . . . – is potentially to prejudice state defendants claiming federal rights and to pre-empt functions that belong to state machinery in the administration of state criminal law.”


It is New York, therefore, not the federal habeas corpus court, which should first provide Jackson with that which he has not yet had and to which he is constitutionally entitled – an adequate evidentiary hearing productive of reliable results concerning the voluntariness of his confession. It does not follow, however, that Jackson is automatically entitled to a complete new trial including a retrial of the issue of guilt or innocence. Jackson’s position before the District Court, and here, is that the issue of his confession should not have been decided by the convicting jury but should have been determined in a proceeding separate and apart from the body trying guilt or innocence.

So far we agree and hold that he is now entitled to such a hearing in the state court. But if at the conclusion of such an evidentiary hearing in the state court on the coercion issue, it is determined that Jackson’s confession was voluntarily given, admissible in evidence, and properly to be considered by the jury, we see no constitutional necessity at that point for proceeding with a new trial, for Jackson has already been tried by a jury with the confession placed before it and has been found guilty.

True, the jury in the first trial was permitted to deal with the issue of voluntariness and we do not know whether the conviction rested upon the confession; but if it did, there is no constitutional prejudice to Jackson from the New York procedure if the confession is now properly found to be voluntary and therefore admissible. If the jury relied upon it, it was entitled to do so. Of course, if the state court, at an evidentiary hearing, redetermines the facts and decides that Jackson’s confession was involuntary, there must be a new trial on guilt or innocence without the confession’s being admitted in evidence.

Obviously, the State is free to give Jackson a new trial if it so chooses, but for us to impose this requirement before the outcome of the new hearing on voluntariness is known would not comport with the interests of sound judicial administration and the proper relationship between federal and state courts. We cannot assume that New York will not now afford Jackson a hearing that is consistent with the requirements of due process. Indeed, New York thought it was affording Jackson such a hearing, and not without support in the decisions of this Court, when it submitted the issue of voluntariness to the same jury that adjudicated guilt. It is both practical and desirable that in cases to be tried hereafter a proper determination of voluntariness be made prior to the admission of the confession to the jury which is adjudicating guilt or innocence. But as to Jackson, who has already been convicted and now seeks collateral relief, we cannot say that the Constitution requires a new trial if in a soundly conducted collateral proceeding, the confession which was admitted at the trial is fairly determined to be voluntary. Accordingly, the judgment denying petitioner’s writ of habeas corpus is reversed and the case is remanded to the District Court to allow the State a reasonable time to afford Jackson a hearing or a new trial, failing which Jackson is entitled to his release.

Reversed and remanded.

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Last Modified:  08/21/2019


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