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decided: May 4, 1970.



Burger, Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall

Author: White

[ 397 U.S. Page 743]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1959, petitioner was charged with kidnaping in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 1201 (a).*fn1 Since the indictment charged that the victim of the kidnaping was not liberated unharmed, petitioner faced a maximum penalty of death if the verdict of the jury should so recommend. Petitioner, represented by competent counsel throughout, first elected to plead not guilty. Apparently because the trial judge was unwilling to try the case without a jury, petitioner made no serious attempt to reduce the possibility of a death penalty by waiving a jury trial. Upon learning that his co-defendant, who had confessed to the authorities, would plead guilty and be available to testify against him, petitioner changed his plea to guilty. His plea was accepted after the trial judge twice questioned him as to the voluntariness of his plea.*fn2

[ 397 U.S. Page 744]

     Petitioner was sentenced to 50 years' imprisonment, later reduced to 30.

In 1967, petitioner sought relief under 28 U. S. C. § 2255, claiming that his plea of guilty was not voluntarily given because § 1201 (a) operated to coerce his plea, because his counsel exerted impermissible pressure upon him, and because his plea was induced by representations with respect to reduction of sentence and clemency. It was also alleged that the trial judge had not fully complied with Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.*fn3

[ 397 U.S. Page 745]

     After a hearing, the District Court for the District of New Mexico denied relief. According to the District Court's findings, petitioner's counsel did not put impermissible pressure on petitioner to plead guilty and no representations were made with respect to a reduced sentence or clemency. The court held that § 1201 (a) was constitutional and found that petitioner decided to plead guilty when he learned that his co-defendant was going to plead guilty: petitioner pleaded guilty "by reason of other matters and not by reason of the statute" or because of any acts of the trial judge. The court concluded that "the plea was voluntarily and knowingly made."

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed, determining that the District Court's findings were supported by substantial evidence and specifically approving the finding that petitioner's plea of guilty was voluntary. 404 F.2d 601 (1968). We granted certiorari, 395 U.S. 976 (1969), to consider the claim that the Court of Appeals was in error in not reaching a contrary result on the authority of this Court's decision in United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968). We affirm.


In United States v. Jackson, supra, the defendants were indicted under § 1201 (a). The District Court dismissed the § 1201 (a) count of the indictment, holding

[ 397 U.S. Page 746]

     the statute unconstitutional because it permitted imposition of the death sentence only upon a jury's recommendation and thereby made the risk of death the price of a jury trial. This Court held the statute valid, except for the death penalty provision; with respect to the latter, the Court agreed with the trial court "that the death penalty provision . . . imposes an impermissible burden upon the exercise of a constitutional right . . . ." 390 U.S., at 572. The problem was to determine "whether the Constitution permits the establishment of such a death penalty, applicable only to those defendants who assert the right to contest their guilt before a jury." 390 U.S., at 581. The inevitable effect of the provision was said to be to discourage assertion of the Fifth Amendment right not to plead guilty and to deter exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to demand a jury trial. Because the legitimate goal of limiting the death penalty to cases in which a jury recommends it could be achieved without penalizing those defendants who plead not guilty and elect a jury trial, the death penalty provision "needlessly penalize[d] the assertion of a constitutional right," 390 U.S., at 583, and was therefore unconstitutional.

Since the "inevitable effect" of the death penalty provision of § 1201 (a) was said by the Court to be the needless encouragement of pleas of guilty and waivers of jury trial, Brady contends that Jackson requires the invalidation of every plea of guilty entered under that section, at least when the fear of death is shown to have been a factor in the plea. Petitioner, however, has read far too much into the Jackson opinion.

The Court made it clear in Jackson that it was not holding § 1201 (a) inherently coercive of guilty pleas: "the fact that the Federal Kidnaping Act tends to discourage defendants from insisting upon their innocence and demanding trial by jury hardly implies that

[ 397 U.S. Page 747]

     every defendant who enters a guilty plea to a charge under the Act does so involuntarily." 390 U.S., at 583. Cited in support of this statement, 390 U.S., at 583 n. 25, was Laboy v. New Jersey, 266 F.Supp. 581 (D.C. N. J. 1967), where a plea of guilty (non vult) under a similar statute was sustained as voluntary in spite of the fact, as found by the ...

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