After having been discharged from the Armed Forces because of
permanent mental disability, and during an unauthorized absence
from a Veterans' hospital where he had been classified as 100%
"incompetent," petitioner was arrested on a charge of robbery.
After eight or nine hours of sustained interrogation in a small
room which was at times filled with police officers, he signed a
confession written for him by a Deputy Sheriff. Shortly thereafter,
he exhibited symptoms of insanity and, after proceedings prescribed
by state law, he was found insane and committed to a state mental
hospital. Over four years later, he was declared mentally competent
to stand trial, and was tried in a state court on the robbery
charge. His confession was admitted in evidence over his objection,
and he was convicted.
the record clearly establishes that the
confession most probably was not the product of any meaningful act
of volition, and its use in obtaining petitioner's conviction
deprived him of his liberty without due process of law in violation
of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 361 U. S.
(a) Though it is possible
that petitioner confessed
during a period of complete mental competence, the evidence here
establishes the strongest probability
that he was insane
and incompetent at the time he allegedly confessed. Pp.
361 U. S.
(b) On the record in this case, there was not such a conflict in
the evidence as to require this Court to accept the trial judge's
conclusion that the confession was voluntary. Pp. 361 U. S.
(c) Where the involuntariness of a confession is conclusively
demonstrated at any stage of a trial, the defendant is deprived of
due process by its use in obtaining his conviction -- even though
important evidence concerning the involuntariness of the confession
was not introduced until after admission of the confession into
evidence and the defendant's counsel did not request
reconsideration of that ruling. Pp. 361 U. S.
40 Ala.App. ___, 109 So. 2d 736, reversed.
Page 361 U. S. 200
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.
Jesse Blackburn was tried in the Circuit Court of Colbert
County, Alabama, on a charge of robbery, found guilty, and
sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment. By far the most damaging piece
of evidence against him was his confession, which he persistently
maintained had not been made voluntarily. [Footnote 1
] The record seemed to provide substantial
support for this contention, and we granted certiorari because of a
grave doubt whether the judgment could stand if measured against
the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the
United States. 359 U.S. 1010. Plenary hearing has hardened this
doubt into firm conviction: Jesse Blackburn has been deprived of
his liberty without due process of law.
The crime with which Blackburn was charged was the robbery of a
mobile store on April 19, 1948. By that date, Blackburn, a
24-year-old Negro, had suffered a lengthy siege of mental illness.
He had served in the armed forces during World War II, but had been
discharged in 1944 as permanently disabled by a psychosis. He was
thereupon placed in an institution and given medical treatment over
extended periods until February
Page 361 U. S. 201
14, 1948, when he was released from a Veterans Administration
hospital for a ten-day leave in the care of his sister. He failed
to return to the hospital, and consequently was discharged on May
24, 1948. The robbery of which he stands convicted occurred during
this period of unauthorized absence from a mental ward. Blackburn's
medical records further disclose that, from 1946, he was classified
by the Veterans Administration as 100 percent "incompetent," and
that, at the time of his discharge from the hospital, both his
diagnosis of "schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type" and his
characterization as "incompetent" remained unchanged.
This does not by any means end the record of Blackburn's history
of mental illness. He was arrested shortly following the robbery,
and, sometime after his confession on May 8, 1948, the Sheriff
reported to the circuit judge that Blackburn had exhibited symptoms
of insanity. The judge thereupon had Blackburn examined by three
physicians, and, after receiving their report, he concluded that
there was "reasonable ground to believe that the defendant was
insane either at the time of the commission of [the] offense or at
the present time." In accordance with the procedure prescribed by
Alabama law, [Footnote 2
judge then directed the Superintendent of the Alabama State
Hospitals to convene a lunacy commission. When the commission
unanimously declared Blackburn insane, the judge committed him to
the Alabama State Hospital for the mentally ill until he should be
"restored to his right mind." [Footnote 3
] Blackburn escaped from the hospital once, only
to be apprehended on another charge, declared insane
Page 361 U. S. 202
by a second Alabama circuit judge, and sent back to the
hospital. Before his return, he was examined by another set of
doctors, who diagnosed his mental condition as "Schizophrenic
reaction, paranoid type" and declared that he was "Insane,
incompetent, and should be placed in [an] insane hospital." Except
for this brief interlude, Blackburn remained in the hospital for
over four years, from July, 1948, to October, 1952, at which time
he was declared mentally competent to stand trial.
At his trial, Blackburn entered pleas of not guilty and not
guilty by reason of insanity. He testified that he could remember
nothing about the alleged crime, the circumstances surrounding it,
his arrest, his confession, his commitment to the State Hospital,
or the early period of his treatment there. He denied the truth of
the confession, but admitted that the signature on it appeared to
be his. According to a 1944 Army medical report, one aspect of
Blackburn's illness was recurrent "complete amnesia concerning his
When the prosecutor proposed to introduce Blackburn's confession
into evidence, his attorney objected, and the judge held a hearing
to determine its admissibility. Blackburn's counsel submitted to
the judge the depositions of two of the three doctors who had
served on the lunacy commission and who had observed Blackburn
during his period of treatment at the State Hospital. These
depositions incorporated copies of three significant documents. The
first was the court order directing examination of Blackburn by a
lunacy commission. This order mentioned Blackburn's previous
treatment in a mental ward and two of his prior commitments to
mental institutions. The second paper was the lunacy commission's
report, in which three state-employed doctors had expressed their
opinion that Blackburn was insane both at the time of his admission
to the hospital on July 29, 1948, and at the time of the robbery on
April 19, 1948.
Page 361 U. S. 203
Finally, the depositions set forth the order which permanently
committed Blackburn to the State Hospital. In addition to attesting
to the accuracy of these documents, the deponents set forth in
detail their opinion of Blackburn's mental condition. Dr. Harry S.
Rowe, the Assistant Superintendent of the Hospital who had worked
since 1923 exclusively with psychopathic patients, stated that, as
a member of the lunacy commission, he had participated in its
investigation and in the submission of its report. Dr. Rowe also
said that he had interviewed Blackburn on many occasions since his
commitment, and that he not only still thought Blackburn had been
insane on the date of the crime but also believed he "most probably
[had been] insane and incompetent" on May 8, 1948, when he had
confessed. These opinions of Dr. Rowe were seconded by Dr. J. S.
Tarwater, a psychiatrist who was Superintendent of the Alabama
To counter this evidence, the prosecutor introduced the
deposition of the third member of the lunacy commission, Dr. A. M.
Richards, a general practitioner who had spent the previous twelve
years treating mental patients and who was a staff member of the
State Hospital. The doctor's answers to petitioner's
interrogatories were in harmony with the depositions of Drs.
Tarwater and Rowe: Dr. Richards acknowledged that he had served on
the lunacy commission, that he had signed the report, and that he
had concurred in the finding that Blackburn had been insane on the
date of the crime. He disclaimed having any other information of
value, and noted in response to a cross-interrogatory that
Blackburn had been "up on the criminal ward, and he was such a
nuisance until I didn't see him often." In his answers to other
cross-interrogatories, however, Dr. Richards executed an
astonishing about-face by opining that Blackburn had been "normal"
since he first saw him, that his mental
Page 361 U. S. 204
condition was "normal" on the date of the crime and "good" on
the date of the confession, and that he had never seen Blackburn
suffer "psychotic episodes." Even this portion of the deposition is
not without incongruity, however, for Dr. Richards' response to one
cross-interrogatory was that he did not believe Blackburn had
experienced lucid intervals.
Evidence concerning the circumstances surrounding the making of
the confession was supplied by the Chief Deputy Sheriff. He
testified that the interrogation had consumed "something like,
maybe five or six hours" on May 8, 1948, and that no one had
threatened Blackburn in any way. The Chief Deputy composed the
statement in narrative form on the basis of Blackburn's answers to
the various questions asked by the officers, and Blackburn signed
the confession two days later. When asked about Blackburn's
behavior, the witness responded that Blackburn had "answered like
any normal person I have examined." After the judge ruled that the
confession would be admitted, but before it was actually admitted,
the Chief Deputy described in somewhat greater detail -- this time
to the jury -- the manner in which the confession had been
obtained. It developed that the examination had begun at
approximately one o'clock in the afternoon and had continued until
ten or eleven o'clock that evening, with about an hour's break for
dinner. Thus, it was established that the questioning went on for
eight or nine hours, rather than five or six. Apparently most of
the interrogation took place in closely confined quarters -- a room
about four by six or six by eight feet -- in which as many as three
officers had at times been present with Blackburn. The Chief Deputy
conceded that Blackburn said he had been a patient in a mental
institution, but claimed that Blackburn also stated he had been
released, and avowed that Blackburn "talked sensible and give
] sensible answers," was clear-eyed, and did not
Page 361 U. S. 205
Blackburn's counsel again objected to admission of the
statement, but the objection was overruled and the confession was
submitted to the jury. After the Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed
the judgment and held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require
exclusion of the confession, Blackburn petitioned this Court for
certiorari. [Footnote 4
was the constitutional issue raised, decided, and presented to this
Court for review.
After according all of the deference to the trial judge's
decision which is compatible with our duty to determine
constitutional questions, [Footnote
] we are unable to escape the conclusion that Blackburn's
confession can fairly be characterized only as involuntary.
Consequently the conviction must be set aside, since this Court, in
a line of decisions beginning in 1936 with Brown v.
Mississippi, 297 U. S. 278
including cases by now too well known and too numerous to bear
citation, has established the principle that the Fourteenth
Amendment is grievously breached when an involuntary confession is
obtained by state officers and introduced into evidence in a
criminal prosecution which culminates in a conviction.
Page 361 U. S. 206
Since Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.
, 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."
] A prolonged
interrogation of an accused who is ignorant of his rights and who
has been cut off from the moral support of friends and relatives is
not infrequently an effective technique of terror. Thus, the range
of inquiry in this type of case must be broad, and this Court has
insisted that the judgment in each instance be based upon
consideration of "the totality of the circumstances." Fikes v.
Alabama, 352 U. S. 191
352 U. S.
It is also established that the Fourteenth Amendment forbids
"fundamental unfairness in the use of evidence, whether true or
false." Lisenba v. California, 314 U.
, 314 U. S. 236
Consequently, we have rejected the argument that introduction of an
involuntary confession is immaterial where other evidence
establishes guilt or corroborates the confession. E.g., Spano
v. New York, 360 U. S. 315
360 U. S. 324
Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U. S. 560
356 U. S.
-568; Watts v. Indiana, 338 U. S.
, 338 U. S. 50
note 2; Haley v. Ohio, 332 U. S. 596
332 U. S. 599
As important as it is that persons who have committed crimes be
convicted, there are considerations which transcend the question of
guilt or innocence. Thus, in cases involving involuntary
confessions, this Court enforces 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
Page 361 U. S. 207
will. This insistence upon putting the government to the task of
proving guilt by means other than inquisition was engendered by
historical abuses which are quite familiar. See Chambers v.
at 309 U. S.
-238; Watts v. Indiana, supra,
338 U. S.
But neither the likelihood that the confession is untrue nor the
preservation of the individual's freedom of will is the sole
interest at stake. As we said just last term,
"The abhorrence of society to the use of involuntary confessions
. . . also turns on 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
Spano v. New York, supra,
at 360 U. S.
-321. Thus, a complex of values underlies the
stricture against use by the state of confessions which, by way of
convenient shorthand, this Court terms involuntary, and the role
played by each in any situation varies according to the particular
circumstances of the case.
In the case at bar, the evidence indisputably establishes the
strongest probability that Blackburn was insane and incompetent at
the time he allegedly confessed. Surely, in the present stage of
our civilization, a most basic sense of justice is affronted by the
spectacle of incarcerating a human being upon the basis of a
statement he made while insane; and this judgment can without
difficulty be articulated in terms of the unreliability of the
confession, the lack of rational choice of the accused, or simply a
strong conviction that our system of law enforcement should not
operate so as to take advantage of a person in this fashion. And
when the other pertinent circumstances are considered -- the eight
to nine-hour sustained interrogation in a tiny room which was upon
occasion literally filled with police officers; the absence of
Blackburn's friends, relatives, or legal counsel; the
Page 361 U. S. 208
of the confession by the Deputy Sheriff, rather than by
Blackburn -- the chances of the confession's having been the
product of a rational intellect and a free will become even more
remote, and the denial of due process even more egregious.
It is, of course, quite true that we are dealing here with
probabilities. It is possible, for example, that Blackburn
confessed during a period of complete mental competence. Moreover,
these probabilities are gauged in this instance primarily by the
opinion evidence of medical experts. But this case is novel only in
the sense that the evidence of insanity here is compelling, for
this Court has in the past reversed convictions where psychiatric
evidence revealed that the person who had confessed was "of low
mentality, if not mentally ill," Fikes v. Alabama, supra,
at 352 U. S. 196
or had a "history of emotional instability," Spano v. New York,
at 360 U. S. 322
And although facts such as youth and lack of education are more
easily ascertained than the imbalance of a human mind, [Footnote 7
] we cannot say that this has
any appreciable bearing upon the difficulty of the ultimate
judgment as to the effect these various circumstances have upon
independence of will, a judgment which must by its nature always be
one of probabilities.
Of course, this case is no different from other involuntary
confession cases in another respect -- where there is a genuine
conflict of evidence, great reliance must be placed upon the finder
of fact. It is this proposition upon which respondent's principal
argument rests, for the trial judge's decision is said to be
inviolable because of an alleged conflict between the depositions
of Dr. Richards, on the one hand, and Drs. Tarwater and Rowe, on
the other. We need not in this case consider the relevance
Page 361 U. S. 209
of the fact that the trial judge, like ourselves, had no
opportunity to witness the demeanor of these doctors. It is
sufficient to observe that the deposition of Dr. Richards is in
such hopeless internal conflict that it raises no genuine issue of
fact. It would be unreasonable in the extreme to base a
determination upon those portions in which the doctor proclaimed
Blackburn normal while ignoring those portions in which he judged
Blackburn insane. Nor have we overlooked the testimony of the Chief
Deputy that Blackburn "talked sensible," was clear-eyed, and did
not appear nervous. But without any evidence in the record
indicating that these observed facts bore any relation to
Blackburn's disease or were symptoms of a remission of his illness,
we are quite unable to conclude that such an inference can be
drawn. [Footnote 8
Fourteenth Amendment would be an illusory safeguard indeed if
testimony of this nature were held to raise a "conflict" which
would preclude appellate review of a case where the evidence of
insanity is as compelling as it is here.
We take note also of respondent's argument that our decision
must be predicated solely upon the evidence introduced by defendant
before admission of the confession. As we have indicated, this
evidence consisted of the depositions, the copies of the documents
incorporated therein, and the testimony of the Chief Deputy. The
other relevant evidence, which included the detailed medical record
of Blackburn's mental illness prior to his arrest, was introduced
at a later stage of the trial. It is quite true that Blackburn's
counsel, so far as the record shows, made no request that the judge
Page 361 U. S. 210
ruling on the basis of this additional data. The Alabama Court
of Appeals decided that, under these circumstances, this further
documentation of Blackburn's insanity was not, under state law,
material to the Fourteenth Amendment question.
Even if respondent's argument were meritorious, our decision
would be the same, since the evidence introduced prior to admission
of the confession was ample to establish its involuntariness. But
we reject the notion that the scope of our review can be thus
restricted. Where the involuntariness of a confession is
conclusively demonstrated at any stage of a trial, the defendant is
deprived of due process by entry of judgment of conviction without
exclusion of the confession. An argument similar to respondent's
was disposed of in Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.
, in the following words:
"That contention rests upon the failure of counsel for the
accused, who had objected to the admissibility of the confessions,
to move for their exclusion after they had been introduced and the
fact of coercion had been proved. It is a contention which proceeds
upon a misconception of the nature of petitioners' complaint. That
complaint is not of the commission of mere error, but of a wrong so
fundamental that it made the whole proceeding a mere pretense of a
trial and rendered the conviction and sentence wholly void. . . .
We are not concerned with a mere question of state practice, or
whether counsel assigned to petitioners were competent or
mistakenly assumed that their first objections were sufficient. . .
"In the instant case, the trial court was fully advised by the
undisputed evidence of the way in which the confessions had been
procured. The trial court knew that there was no other evidence
upon which conviction and sentence could be based. Yet
Page 361 U. S. 211
it proceeded to permit conviction and to pronounce sentence. The
conviction and sentence were void for want of the essential
elements of due process. . . ."
at 297 U. S.
Just as in Brown,
the evidence here clearly establishes
that the confession most probably was not the product of any
meaningful act of volition. Therefore, the use of this evidence to
convict Blackburn transgressed the imperatives of fundamental
justice which find their expression in the Due Process Clause of
the Fourteenth Amendment, and the judgment must be
MR. JUSTICE CLARK concurs in the result.
The only other adverse evidence of any significance tended to
prove that Blackburn and two others had traveled to Alabama from
Illinois around the date of the robbery; that they were driving a
maroon Buick; and that the crime was committed by persons who drove
a maroon Buick with an Illinois license plate.
Ala.Code, 1940, Tit. 15, § 425.
We later set forth in detail the opinions of the members of this
lunacy commission, Drs. Tarwater, Rowe, and Richards. As will
appears, the evidence they supplied is of critical importance in
The Alabama Court of Appeals wrote two opinions in this case.
After the first, 38 Ala.App. 143, 88 So. 2d 199, and after the
Alabama Supreme Court had denied certiorari, 264 Ala. 694, 88 So.
2d 205, we granted certiorari, 352 U.S. 924, and later vacated the
judgment and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals because we
were uncertain whether that court had passed upon the federal
question. 354 U. S. 393
Court of Appeals reaffirmed the judgment of conviction, 40 Ala.App.
116, 109 So. 2d 736, and the Alabama Supreme Court again denied
certiorari, 268 Ala. 699, 109 So. 2d 738. The case was then ripe
for our review, and we granted certiorari once more. 359 U.S.
It is well established, of course, that although this Court will
accord respect to the conclusions of the state courts in cases of
this nature, we cannot escape the responsibility of scrutinizing
the record ourselves. E.g., Spano v. New York,
360 U. S. 315
360 U. S. 316
Pierre v. Louisiana, 306 U. S. 354
306 U. S. 358
Chambers v. Florida, 309 U. S. 227
309 U. S.
E.g., Spano v. New York, 360 U.
; Fikes v. Alabama, 352 U.
; Watts v. Indiana, 338 U. S.
; Turner v. Pennsylvania, 338 U. S.
; Harris v. South Carolina, 338 U. S.
; Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.
Lack of education is a factor frequently present in this type of
case; and in Haley v. Ohio, supra,
the fact that the
accused was a 15-year-old youth weighed heavily in the Court's
It is interesting to note that Blackburn's medical records
disclose that, in 1944, he was given a diagnosis of "Psychosis,
manic depressive, manic phase," and yet was said to answer
questions "relevantly and coherently." Dr. Rowe stated that it was
clear Blackburn "was suffering from schizophrenia of the paranoic
type. They . . . entertain delusions. . . ."