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State v. Pierce

Decided: March 27, 1950.


On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Case, Heher, Wachenfeld and Burling. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Wachenfeld, J.


This appeal is from a judgment entered on a verdict of murder in the first degree, life imprisonment having been imposed in accordance with the jury's determination.

The appellant was one of a group attending a birthday party on the night of March 15, 1949, at a private house in Lakewood, New Jersey. He was recently discharged from the Army and carried a semi-automatic pistol of Belgian manufacture. The pistol had a clip containing live ammunition. The decedent, Morris, was also present at the party. The record indicates he and the appellant had not met prior to this occasion.

About midnight the festivities at the house ended and a group of the guests, including the appellant and Morris, moved on to Jackson's Tavern in Lakewood, where the drinking and dancing that had been going on earlier were continued. Two of the girls attending the party went outside for fresh air and sat on the front seat of an automobile parked near the tavern. Soon Morris came out, approached the car, put his hand on the shoulder of one of the girls and started a conversation with them. Shortly thereafter the appellant came out of the tavern and went over to the car, where he said something to Morris to the effect that the girl on whose

shoulder he had his hand was another man's wife. He then struck Morris twice in the face and almost simultaneously a shot was heard. Morris dropped to the ground with a bullet wound in his head from which he died shortly thereafter.

The altercation took place in the early morning hours of March 16th. The appellant was apprehended at about one-thirty P.M. the following day and taken to the local police headquarters for questioning, which began between four and four-thirty in the afternoon and continued until about six-thirty. He was then locked in a cell at police headquarters until about nine o'clock in the evening and finally, at eleven-thirty P.M., a statement in question and answer form was taken, recorded by a stenographer who was present, and signed by Pierce at one-thirty the following afternoon. Later that afternoon he was taken before a police magistrate and arraigned.

At first, Pierce denied having fired the shot that killed Morris but later made a statement saying he had a gun in his hand when he struck Morris and it went off when he hit him the second time. At the trial the signed written statement to this effect was put in evidence over the objection of the defense counsel.

Two reasons are relied upon for a reversal: first, error in the admission of the appellant's signed statement; second, the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence.

As to the admissibility of the written statement, it is argued it was an involuntary, coerced confession obtained by means which violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The objection is founded upon the fact that prior to the making of the oral confession the appellant was not warned of his right to remain silent and advised that any statement he made might be used against him and his being questioned for several hours made him fearful and nervous to such a degree as to render the statement made involuntary and not admissible. It is also intimated the confession was induced by the threat to have his mother present at the inquiry. It is likewise urged, though not made a ground of objection in the

court below, that there was a violation of Rule 2:3-3 in that Pierce was not, after his arrest, taken "without unnecessary delay, before the nearest available magistrate." This violation, it is alleged, together with the other facts and circumstances, invalidated the confession.

The primary inquiry, in determining the admissibility of a statement made by an accused, is whether it was voluntarily made. Roesel v. State, 62 N.J.L. 216 (E. & A. 1898); State v. Young, 67 N.J.L. 223 (E. & A. 1902); State v. Hand, 71 N.J.L. 137 (Sup. Ct. 1904). The same rule obtains in the federal courts and was stated by Chief Justice Fuller in Wilson v. U.S., 162 U.S. 613, 40 L. Ed. 1090 (1896):

"In short, the true test of admissibility is that the confession is made freely, voluntarily, and without compulsion or inducement of any sort."

Whether a statement or confession is voluntary depends on the facts in each case. Its competency is primarily for the trial judge and the weight to be given it is determined by the jury. State v. Compo, 108 N.J.L. 499 (E. & A. 1932); State v. Favorito, 115 N.J.L. 197 (E. & A. 1935). The determination of the trial court will not as a rule be disturbed on appeal when there is sufficient evidence to support it. State v. Cole, 136 N.J.L. 606 (E. & A. 1948).

Many federal cases are cited disclosing various sets of factual developments which taken in their entirety were found to have created a state of coercion or duress sufficient to invalidate the resulting confessions. In White v. Texas, 310 U.S. 530, 84 L. Ed. 1342 (1940), a suspect was taken into the woods on several successive nights, tied to a tree and whipped. In Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 84 L. Ed. 716 (1940), there were five days of long examinations culminating in an all-night session that obviously produced the confession. In Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 88 L. Ed. 1192 (1944), thirty-six hours of continuous examination by relays of officers brought forth the confession complained of. In Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596, 92 L. Ed. 224 (1948),

a fifteen-year-old illiterate suspect was grilled by relays of officers from midnight to five A.M., when he capitulated and made the desired statement. In Watts v. Indiana, 93 L. Ed. 1434 (1949), six days of long periods of interrogation by relays of officers was undisputed. In Harris v. South Carolina, 93 L. Ed. 1440 (1949), there were three days of vigorous interrogation by relays of officers in stifling heat, while in Turner v. Pennsylvania, 93 L. Ed. 1443 (1949), the defendant was held incommunicado for four days with long periods of constant interrogation. These prolonged periods of interrogation, together with the other conditions and circumstances recited in each of the cases, were determined by the court to be improper and oppressive, making the resulting confessions inadmissible in evidence and violating the rule of "fundamental fairness."

In State v. Cooper, 2 N.J. 540 (1949), we held a confession freely and voluntarily given, uninduced by either hope or fear or other considerations, leading to the substitution of something else than the truth, is testimonially trustworthy and evidential where probative value alone is the measure of its worth, but that under the Fourteenth Amendment the inquiry must also include whether or not there is "that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice."

After referring to the United States Supreme Court cases above recited and the determination the court there made on the respective facts involved as to when and under what circumstances an abuse of power to arrest ...

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