Brady v. United States
397 U.S. 742 (1970)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970)

Brady v. United States

No. 270

Argued November 18, 1969

Decided May 4, 1970

397 U.S. 742


Petitioner was indicted in 1959 for kidnaping and not liberating the victim unharmed in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a), which imposed a maximum penalty of death if the jury's verdict so recommended. Upon learning that his codefendant, who had confessed, would plead guilty and testify against him, petitioner changed his plea from not guilty to guilty. The trial judge accepted the plea after twice questioning petitioner (who was represented throughout by competent counsel) as to the voluntariness of his plea, and imposed sentence. In 1967, petitioner sought post-conviction relief, in part on the ground that § 1201(a) operated to coerce his plea. The District Court, after hearing, denied relief, concluding that petitioner's plea was voluntary and had been induced not by that statute, but by the development concerning his confederate. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Petitioner claims that United States v. Jackson, 390 U. S. 570 (1968), requires reversal of that holding.

Held: On the record in this case, there is no basis for disturbing the judgment of the courts below that petitioner's guilty plea was voluntary. Pp. 397 U. S. 745-758.

(a) Though United States v. Jackson, supra, prohibits imposition of the death penalty under § 1201(a), it does not hold that all guilty pleas encouraged by the fear of possible death are involuntary, nor does it invalidate such pleas, whether involuntary or not. Pp. 397 U. S. 745-748.

(b) A plea of guilty is not invalid merely because entered to avoid the possibility of the death penalty, and here, petitioner's plea of guilty met the standard of voluntariness, as it was made "by one fully aware of the direct consequences" of that plea. Pp. 397 U. S. 749-755.

(c) Petitioner's plea, made after advice by competent counsel, was intelligently made, and the fact that petitioner did not anticipate United States v. Jackson, supra, does not impugn the truth or reliability of that plea. Pp. 397 U. S. 756-758.

404 F.2d 601, affirmed.

Page 397 U. S. 743

Primary Holding
Submitting a guilty plea to avoid the risk of greater penalties does not make that plea constitutionally invalid as the product of coercion.
The offense of kidnapping in Brady's jurisdiction could have resulted in the death penalty if the victim was injured before being freed. To avoid the possibility of the death penalty, Brady pleaded guilty to a lesser kidnapping charge. The trial judge only accepted the plea after asking twice whether it was voluntary. Brady tried to challenge the plea after his conviction on the basis that it was not voluntary because his only reason for entering it was to avoid the death penalty. His request for post-conviction relief was denied.



  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • William Orville Douglas
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • Potter Stewart
  • Thurgood Marshall

The only situations in which a plea may be involuntary and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment are if it is the product of physical harm, a threat of physical harm, or mental coercion. Misrepresentations or bribes may make a plea invalid. The defendant benefited from a plea that allowed him to avoid a charge that carried the death penalty, and this is the type of mutually beneficial arrangement that the plea bargaining system is designed to encourage.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)

Case Commentary

Although implicitly threatening a more severe penalty may seem coercive, courts are reluctant to find coercion when the defendant gets something in return for the guilty plea, such as the reduced charge here.

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