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HARRIS v. SOUTH CAROLINA

decided: June 27, 1949.

HARRIS
v.
SOUTH CAROLINA



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF SOUTH CAROLINA.

Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge, Burton, Minton

Author: Frankfurter

[ 338 U.S. Page 68]

 MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which MR. JUSTICE MURPHY and MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE join.

On Sunday morning, April 28, 1946, Edward L. Bennett and his wife were killed in their store in Aiken

[ 338 U.S. Page 69]

     County, South Carolina. Bennett's last words were, "A big negro shot me and robbed me." Petitioner, Harris, age twenty-five, a slightly built Negro, was subsequently indicted in the Court of General Sessions for Aiken County and found guilty of the murder of the Bennetts. The jury's verdict required imposition of the death sentence. The Supreme Court of South Carolina denied the claim that a confession introduced at the trial was obtained under circumstances which precluded its admission under the Due Process Clause and sustained the conviction, 212 S. C. 124, 46 S. E. 2d 682, by a 3-2 vote, two judges dissenting on the ground that the facts show that the confession "was not freely and voluntarily made." We brought the case here to consider the validity of this claim. 334 U.S. 837.

When the disputed testimony is resolved in favor of the State, the following facts emerge:

The police of Aiken County spent two and a half months in fruitless investigation of the murders. Many suspects had been held for interrogation and then released. Suspicion was finally directed toward petitioner by reports that he possessed a pistol and had left for Nashville, Tennessee, soon after the murders. The Sheriff of Aiken County then obtained a warrant, ostensibly for the purpose of arresting petitioner for the theft of his aunt's pistol but actually to secure his return from Nashville. He was taken into custody there on Friday, July 12, 1946. No warrant was read to him and he was not informed of the charge against him. He was brought back to Aiken County and lodged in its jail on Sunday afternoon at about four o'clock. He first learned that he was suspected of the murder of Bennett on Monday afternoon. He denied the accusation. At that time he was briefly interrogated by the sheriff and the jailer.

On Monday night questioning began in earnest. At least five officers worked in relays, relieving each other

[ 338 U.S. Page 70]

     from time to time to permit respite from the stifling heat of the cubicle in which the interrogation was conducted. Throughout the evening petitioner denied that he had killed the Bennetts. On Tuesday the questioning continued under the same conditions from 1:30 in the afternoon until past one the following morning with only an hour's interval at 5:30. On Wednesday afternoon the Chief of the State Constabulary, with half a dozen of his men, questioned petitioner for about an hour, and the local authorities carried on the interrogation for three and a half hours longer. At 6:30 that evening the examination resumed. Petitioner continued to deny implication in the killings. The sheriff then threatened to arrest petitioner's mother for handling stolen property. Petitioner replied, "Don't get my mother mixed up in it and I will tell you the truth." Petitioner then stated in substance what appears in the confession introduced at the trial. The session ended at midnight.

Petitioner was not informed of his rights under South Carolina law, such as the right to secure a lawyer, the right to request a preliminary hearing, or the right to remain silent. No preliminary hearing was ever given and his confession does not even contain the usual statement that he was told that what he said might be used against him. During the whole period of interrogation he was denied the benefit of consultation with family and friends and was surrounded by as many as a dozen members of a dominant group in positions of authority. It is relevant to note that Harris was an illiterate.

The trial judge in his charge told the jury that without the confession there was no evidence which would support a conviction and instructed them that they could consider the confession only if they found it to have been "voluntary." Upon appeal, the highest court of the State made a conscientious effort to ...


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