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United States v. Yeager

July 17, 1963

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, EX REL. SYLVESTER JOHNSON, APPELLANT,
v.
HOWARD YEAGER, PRINCIPAL KEEPER OF THE NEW JERSEY STATE PRISON. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, EX REL. STANLEY CASSIDY, APPELLANT, V. HOWARD YEAGER, PRINCIPAL KEEPER OF THE NEW JERSEY STATE PRISON. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, EX REL. WAYNE GODFREY, APPELLANT, V. HOWARD YEAGER, PRINCIPAL KEEPER OF THE NEW JERSEY STATE PRISON.



Author: Hastie

Before KALODNER, HASTIE and GANEY, Circuit Judges.

HASTIE, Circuit Judge.

Three New Jersey state prisoners, under sentence of death for first-degree murder, have taken these appeals from an order of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey denying their petition for habeas corpus*fn1 The principal contention of the appellants is that due process of law has been denied them because confessions which do not satisfy the constitutional standard of voluntariness were used as evidence against them at their trial. The district court resolved this issue against the appellants on the basis of the evidence that was before the New Jersey courts. On this appeal we shall consider only those facts which have been found judicially or cannot reasonably be disputed in the light of the showing in the record.

At the trial the prosecution undertook to prove that the three appellants drove in appellant Godfrey's car to a store operated by the decedent, with a common purpose to commit robbery; that Godfrey remained in the car while the other two entered the store; and that in the course of the attempted robbery Johnson fatally shot the storekeeper. Thus, under the prosecution's case, as presented, it was essential to a conviction of first-degree murder that robbery be established as the objective of the enterprise. All three appellants had signed confessions admitting that their purpose was to rob the storekeeper. These confessions were essential items of proof on this issue.

In this habeas corpus proceeding, the appellants, who do not deny the killing, contend that they were coerced into admitting that they were engaged in robbery, when in fact their purpose in going to the store was to collect a debt owed by the storekeeper to appellant Johnson.

None of the appellants testified at the trial, either as to the manner in which the confessions were obtained or for any other purpose*fn2 The only testimony given at the trial concerning the confessions was that of the officers and stenographers who were present during the initial detention and interrogation of the prisoners or when the formal statements of the prisoners were made and transcribed. The appellants did testify, more than a year later, at a hearing on their motion for a new trial. The New Jersey courts have considered this testimony on the issue of alleged coercion, and it was properly considered by the district court in this habeas corpus proceeding.

On the record thus made, important differences in the circumstances of the three confessions appear. Accordingly, we shall discuss matters relevant to each confession separately.

WAYNE GODFREY

The killing took place on Friday, January 24, 1958, at about 6:10 P.M. Godfrey was arrested at about 1:30 the following Tuesday afternoon. He was taken to detective headquarters in the Camden courthouse, where he remained until 10:30 Wednesday morning, when he was taken to the office of the Chief of Detectives for the transcription of a formal confession. There, in answer to questions put to him by Detective Chief Dube, he made the confession which was later introduced into evidence.

Throughout the case, the New Jersey courts have emphasized, as appellee does here, that on the occasion of this formal confession Godfrey was treated civilly and interrogated in a proper and polite manner. On that occasion the prisoner was submissive, talking freely and without necessity for any great urging. If only the occurrences in the office of Chief Dube are considered, the confession appears to be voluntary. However, for reasons to be elaborated later, we think this restricted view of the matter in issue has unduly influenced the entire judicial consideration of the claim that the confession was coerced. The events preceding the formal confession must be considered as well as its immediately attendant circumstances.

The testimony of police officers, given at the trial, concerning the 20-hour period immediately preceding Godfrey's formal confession was sketchy, but nevertheless revealing. It was admitted that the prisoner spent this whole period, including the entire night, in a room at the detective bureau in the Camden courthouse where he was detained and questioned.

Little appears concerning the first few hours of detention. The police testified that they took the prisoner after his arrest to a room in the detective bureau where all of his clothes were removed. Subsequently he was given coveralls obtained from the city jail. The police officers did not say how long the prisoner remained naked before coveralls were obtained. At the subsequent hearing Godfrey testified that he had remained naked about an hour. There was no testimony to the contrary. Finally, a police captain testified at the trial that "when he [Godfrey] was first arrested he was asked some questions by some members of the City Detective Bureau."

The police were more informative as to events beginning about 8:00 P.M. and continuing through the night until 10:30 the following morning. Almost all of this time was spent in the conference room of the detective bureau. Questioning by relays of police officers, seven of whom are identified in the record, continued intermittently throughout the night and into the next morning until the desired confession was obtained. Most of the time the prisoner was kept sitting in a chair. At no time during the night was he given an opportunity to lie down. One officer had no recollection of the prisoner sleeping. Another remembered that the prisoner would doze off and be aroused by further questioning. Another remembered that the prisoner drank much coffee. It was in mid-morning, at the end of this phase of interrogation, that the prisoner was taken before Chief Dube for the formal confession which proceeded smoothly and without apparent reluctance on Godfrey's part.

With this much in the record, Godfrey's counsel objected "to the admission in evidence of the confession * * * on the basis that it was taken after a prolonged period of interrogation from 1:30 Tuesday afternoon, January 28, 1958, until sometime after eleven o'clock, January 29, 1958, the following day". The court ruled, however, that Godfrey's confession was voluntary and admitted it.

At the hearing on the appellant's motion for a new trial, it was established that Godfrey had been examined by a psychiatrist employed by the State of New Jersey. The psychiatrist found that Godfrey, a 27-year-old laborer with a seventh grade education, was "an inadequate individual with impaired psychological conditioning". Moreover, a special psychological examination, also made by a state expert, revealed "a rather disturbed individual who has definite schizoid tendencies". Godfrey himself gave undisputed testimony that he was a regular user of marijuana and an occasional user of heroin. He also testified that throughout the morning of his arrest, and thus only a few hours before interrogation began, he had been smoking marijuana cigarettes.

The total picture is illuminated by the conduct of the police in denying Godfrey access to friends, counsel or a magistrate until the interrogation had produced a full confession. New Jersey law requires that an arrested person be taken promptly before a magistrate. N.J. Rules 3:2-3 (a). Godfrey testified, and the police have not denied, that during the course of his detention he asked without avail for counsel. Such behavior by the police strongly indicates a determination to keep the prisoner under pressure of ...


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