Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556 (1954)

Author: Justice Minton

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Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556 (1954)

MR. JUSTICE MINTON, with whom MR. JUSTICE REED and MR. JUSTICE BURTON join, dissenting.

This petitioner was charged with murdering his parents by beating the life out of them with a hammer. No one claims that he has a defense to the charge. It is contended, however, that his conviction was not obtained in accordance with due process of law.

He has already had two trials. His first conviction was appealed and reversed. The second one was appealed and affirmed, and this Court denied certiorari on a petition that set up the same constitutional questions now raised. Then habeas corpus proceedings were instituted in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, and relief was denied. That judgment was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and is the one now here on certiorari.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed the first conviction on the ground that a confession introduced in evidence at the trial was the result of mental coercion, and hence involuntary. The threats, cajoling, and promises of leniency utilized by Dr. Helfand, a psychiatrist called in by the District Attorney, to induce petitioner to confess were soundly condemned by that court. The confession thus obtained was held inadmissible for the purpose of proving petitioner’s guilt. But petitioner’s subsequent confessions to Captain Meenahan of the police, to the two assistant district attorneys, and to his business associate, Herrschaft, were not invalidated as a matter of law. The case was remanded to the trial court with directions to submit to a jury under proper instructions the question whether the subsequent confessions resulted from or were influenced by the mental coercion which produced the Helfand confession.

The case was tried a second time, and the question of the voluntariness of the subsequent confessions was submitted to the jury under clear and ample instructions as to which petitioner raises no objection here. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder of the father, and a sentence of death was imposed.

We are now asked to hold that the later confessions were involuntary as a matter of law, and that petitioner was denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment because the jury was allowed to consider the voluntariness of the subsequent confessions. It seems to me the very essence of due process to submit to a jury the question of whether these later confessions were tainted by the prior coercion and promises which led to the Helfand confession. I am familiar with no case in which this Court has ever held that an invalid confession ipso facto invalidates all subsequent confessions as a matter of law. It does not seem to me a denial of due process for the state to allow the jury to say, under all the facts and circumstances in evidence and under proper instructions by the court, whether the subsequent confessions were tainted or were free and voluntary. This is precisely what New York did. In Lyons v. Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 603, it was said:

The Fourteenth Amendment does not protect one who has admitted his guilt because of forbidden inducements against the use at trial of his subsequent confessions under all possible circumstances. The admissibility of the later confession depends upon the same test -- is it voluntary.

The only question before us is whether the effects of the coercion practiced by Dr. Helfand so clearly continued to influence petitioner’s mind as to make unreasonable any conclusion other than that the later confessions were also coerced. If there was evidence to support contrary inferences as to the continuing effect of the coercive practices, the conviction should not be disturbed. It is not our function to set aside state court convictions on the ground that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 180.

The evidence shows an involuntary confession to Dr. Helfand.

Nor was this the only evidence. Petitioner boldly examined Dr. Helfand, the State’s witness, for the purpose, among others, of laying a foundation for the introduction of expert testimony by petitioner’s psychiatrist that the effect of the coercion carried over to the later confessions. Petitioner’s expert testified as expected. The State then placed on the stand another psychiatrist, who gave the opposite opinion, based on evidence that petitioner in his later confessions gave details of the crime known only to him, and gave them freely, without urging. If this disagreement between experts did not, under New York law, constitute a conflict in the evidence sufficient, standing alone, to go to the jury, there was other evidence, such as the Herrschaft confession, to be considered, together with the testimony of the assistant district attorneys that petitioner seemed quite normal and relaxed, and relieved to talk to them. As I said before, it is not our function to weigh the evidence. Whether there was any evidence to go to a jury is the question. In my opinion, there was a question of fact presented by the evidence.

This Court concluded its opinion in the Lyons case in these words:

We cannot say that an inference of guilt based in part upon Lyons’ [later] McAlester confession is so illogical and unreasonable as to deny the petitioner a fair trial.

Lyons v. Oklahoma, supra, at 605. I cannot say here that the subsequent confessions as a matter of law were so completely under the influence of the first confession that to let a jury pass upon that influence as it affected the voluntariness of the later confessions amounts to a denial of due process of law. To let the jury pass upon this question is not so unfair to petitioner as to violate the fundamental principles of justice.

It is contended that the promises of leniency made by Dr. Helfand stand on a different footing; that, once a promise is made, its effect must be presumed to continue until the promise is clearly withdrawn. But such has never been the law. See State v. Willis, 71 Conn. 293, 313, 41 A. 820. As in the case of other forms of coercion and inducement, once a promise of leniency is made, a presumption arises that it continues to operate on the mind of the accused. But a showing of a variety of circumstances can overcome that presumption. The length of time elapsing between the promise and the confession, the apparent authority of the person making the promise, whether the confession is made to the same person who offered leniency, and the explicitness and persuasiveness of the inducement are among the many factors to be weighed.

There are two parties to this case, the State and the petitioner, and on the State rests the heavy burden of proving guilt. As Mr. Justice Cardozo said in Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 122:

But justice, though due to the accused, is due to the accuser also. The concept of fairness must not be strained till it is narrowed to a filament. We are to keep the balance true.

New York must be mystified in its efforts to enforce its law against homicide to have us say it may not submit a disputed question of fact to a jury. The Court holds that to do so denies due process. The answer to that question, which did not seem substantial to us when certiorari was sought to review the decision of the New York Court of Appeals, now emerges crystal clear when we are reviewing the decision of a federal court dealing with it in a collateral habeas corpus proceeding. And yet the jury and a majority of the judges of every court, state and federal, that until now have considered the matter have found no such failure to observe constitutional standards. Mr. Justice Cardozo’s words in the Snyder case, supra, at page 122, seem especially pertinent here:

There is danger that the criminal law will be brought into contempt -- that discredit will even touch the great immunities assured by the Fourteenth Amendment -- if gossamer possibilities of prejudice to a defendant are to nullify a sentence pronounced by a court of competent jurisdiction in obedience to local law, and set the guilty free.

The careful, considerate, fair trial accorded petitioner is in keeping with the fundamental essentials of justice which are due process, and I would affirm.

* The record discloses that petitioner was questioned by Captain Meenahan on Tuesday, the day of the murder, from about 9 or 10 in the evening until 10:30 or 10:45 at his parents’ apartment. On Wednesday, at about 10 in the morning, he was met at his place of business by detectives who questioned him off and on until 1:20 p.m., when Captain Meenahan began an interrogation which was concluded at 11:30 or 12 that night. He was then allowed to go home. It was not until Thursday that he was taken in custody. That morning, he was taken out by detectives to check his alibi. Questioning by Captain Meenahan began again about 2 that afternoon. He was kept at the station until 8:30 o’clock Friday morning, but there was little questioning after 10 p.m. Thursday evening. On Friday morning, he was taken to his parents’ funeral, and then permitted to sleep for an hour and a half. He was returned to the police station, and about 5 o’clock Friday afternoon, the interview with Dr. Helfand began. The coercion practiced by Dr. Helfand was forcefully condemned by the New York Court of Appeals, and caused it to declare the confession to Dr. Helfand invalid as a matter of law. The validity of this confession is not involved.


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Chicago: Minton, "Minton, J., Dissenting," Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556 (1954) in 347 U.S. 556 347 U.S. 585–347 U.S. 589. Original Sources, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9ESMURAWEL7UXDK.

MLA: Minton. "Minton, J., Dissenting." Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556 (1954), in 347 U.S. 556, pp. 347 U.S. 585–347 U.S. 589. Original Sources. 24 Feb. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9ESMURAWEL7UXDK.

Harvard: Minton, 'Minton, J., Dissenting' in Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556 (1954). cited in 1954, 347 U.S. 556, pp.347 U.S. 585–347 U.S. 589. Original Sources, retrieved 24 February 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9ESMURAWEL7UXDK.