Williams v. New York
337 U.S. 241 (1949)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241 (1949)

Williams v. New York

No. 671

Argued April 21, 1949

Decided June 6, 1949

337 U.S. 241

Syllabus

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require that a person convicted after a fair trial be confronted with and permitted to cross-examine witnesses as to his prior criminal record considered by the judge in accordance with a state statute in determining what sentence to impose pursuant to broad discretion vested in him under state law -- even when the jury recommends life imprisonment and the judge imposes a death sentence. Pp. 337 U. S. 242-252.

(a) It has long been the practice to permit the sentencing judge to exercise a wide discretion as to the sources and types of information used to assist him in determining the sentence to be imposed within the limits fixed by law. P. 337 U. S. 246.

(b) Modern concepts individualizing punishment have made it all the more necessary that a sentencing judge not be denied an opportunity to obtain pertinent information by a requirement of rigid adherence to restrictive rules of evidence properly applicable to the trial. Pp. 337 U. S. 246-249.

(c) To deprive the sentencing judge of information contained in reports of probation officers would undermine modern penological procedural policies that have been cautiously adopted throughout the nation after careful consideration and experimentation. Pp. 337 U. S. 249-250

(d) In considering the sentence to be imposed after conviction, the sentencing judge is not restricted to information received in open court. Pp. 337 U. S. 250-251.

(e) A different result is not required when a death sentence is imposed. Pp. 337 U. S. 251-252.

298 N.Y. 803, 83 N.E. 2d 698, affirmed.

After a fair trial, appellant was convicted of murder in the first degree and the jury recommended life imprisonment. After considering information as to his previous criminal record without permitting him to confront or cross-examine the witnesses on that subject, the trial

Page 337 U. S. 242

judge sentenced him to death. The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed. 298 N.Y. 803, 83 N.E.2d 698. On appeal to this Court, affirmed, p. 337 U. S. 252.

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Primary Holding

A sentencing judge can consider evidence presented by witnesses even if the defendant was not able to cross-examine or rebut them.

Facts

A jury recommended a sentence of life imprisonment after it convicted Williams of first-degree murder. The trial judge rejected this recommendation and sentenced Williams to death after considering testimony from witnesses whom Williams was not allowed to cross-examine or rebut. On appeal, he claimed that he should have had this opportunity under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the trial judge based the death sentence upon that testimony.

Opinions

Majority

  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • Frederick Moore Vinson
  • Stanley Forman Reed
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Robert Houghwout Jackson
  • Harold Hitz Burton

Procedures in the sentencing phase need not be as detailed and rigid as procedures in the guilt phase. Judges should be able to review many different materials when determining a sentence for a specific defendant. It would be impractical to apply the strict procedural protections from the guilt phase to that process because of the burden that it would impose on judges.

Dissent

  • Frank Murphy (Author)

This result denies the defendant his due process rights because he is required to have a fair hearing at all stages of a criminal proceeding. The judge erred in casting aside the sentence proposed by the jury, based on evidence that would have been inadmissible at the trial.

Dissent

  • Wiley Blount Rutledge (Author)

Case Commentary

Discretionary sentencing gives an individual judge sweeping powers to override a jury's decision, which gives rise to constitutional concerns. A sentencing hearing now does allow defendants in most states to cross-examine and rebut adverse witnesses. Only a few states give judges the power to override a jury sentence of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty in capital cases.

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