No. 884.

162 U.S. 613 (1896)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided April 27, 1896.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

No appearance for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Solicitor General and Mr. Assistant Attorney General Dickinson for defendants in error submitted on their brief.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

Possession of the fruits of crime, recently after its commission, justifies the inference that the possession is guilty possession, and, though only prima facie evidence of guilt, may be of controlling weight unless explained by the circumstances or accounted for in some way consistent with innocence. 1 Greenl. Ev. (15th ed.) § 34. In Rickman's case, 2 East P.C. 1035, cited, it was held that on an indictment for arson, proof that property was in the house at the time it was burned, and was soon afterwards found in the possession of the prisoner, raises a probable presumption that he was present and concerned in the offence; and in Rex v. Diggles, (Wills Cir. Ev. *53,) that there is a like presumption in the case of murder accompanied by robbery. Proof that defendant had in his possession, soon after, articles apparently taken from the deceased at the time of his death is always admissible, and the fact, with its legitimate inference, is to be considered by the jury along with the other facts in the case in arriving at their verdict. Williams v. Commonwealth, 29 Penn. St. 102; Commonwealth v. McGorty, 114 Mass. 299; Sahlinger v. People, 102 Illinois, 241; State v. Raymond, 46 Connecticut, 345; Whart. Cr. Ev. § 762.

The trial judge did not charge the jury that they should be controlled by the presumption arising from the fact of the possession of the property of one recently murdered, but that they might consider that there was a presumption and act upon it, unless it were rebutted by the evidence or the explanations of the accused.

Again, the existence of blood stains at or near a place where violence has been inflicted is always relevant and admissible in evidence. Wharton Crim. Ev. § 778; Commonwealth v. Sturtivant, 117 Mass. 122. The trial judge left it to the jury, if they found that there were blood stains and that the defendant had not satisfactorily explained them, to draw the inference, in the exercise of their judgment, that there was an act of deadly violence perpetrated against a person while upon or connected with the bed clothing. In other words, that the jury might regard blood stains not satisfactorily explained as a circumstance in determining whether or not a murder had been committed.

Nor can there be any question that if the jury were satisfied from the evidence that false statements in the case were made by defendant, or on his behalf, at his instigation, they had the right not only to take such statements into consideration in connection with all the other circumstances of the case in determining whether or not defendant's conduct had been satisfactorily explained by him upon the theory of his innocence, but also to regard false statements in explanation or defence made or procured to be made as in themselves tending to show guilt. The destruction, suppression or fabrication of evidence undoubtedly gives rise to a presumption of guilt to be dealt with by the jury. 1 Greenl. § 37; 3 Id. § 34; Commonwealth v. Webster, 5 Cush. 295.

The testimony of the defendant in a criminal case is to be considered and weighed by the jury, taking all the evidence into consideration, and giving such weight to the testimony as in their judgment it ought to have. Hicks v. United States, 150 U.S. 442, 452; Allison v. United States, 160 U.S. 203. The trial judge did not charge the jury to treat the testimony of defendant in a manner different from that in which they treated the testimony of other witnesses, and left it to them to give to his evidence, under all the circumstances affecting its credibility and weight, such consideration as they thought it entitled to receive.

We cannot reverse this judgment for error in either of the instructions complained of.

No ground of objection is specified to the admission of the picture of Thatch, nor is any particular ground disclosed by the record. It was, we presume, admitted on the question of identity, and as such was admissible in connection with the other evidence. Udderzook v. Commonwealth, 76 Penn. St. 340; Cowley v. People, 83 N.Y. 464; Ruloff v. People, 45 N.Y. 213; Luke v. Calhoun County, 52 Alabama, 115; Franklin v. State, 69 Georgia, 36. And see Luco v. United States, 23 How. 515.

This brings us to consider the exception taken to the admission of defendant's statement in evidence. The ground of the objection was that it was not voluntary. Although his answers to the questions did not constitute a confession of guilt, yet he thereby made disclosures which furnished the basis of attack, and whose admissibility may be properly passed on in the light of the rules applicable to confessions. Of course, all verbal admissions must be received with caution, though free, deliberate and voluntary confessions of guilt are entitled to great weight. But they are inadmissible if made under any threat, promise, or encouragement of any hope or favor. 1 Greenl. Ev. §§ 214, 215, 219.

In Hopt v. Utah, 110 U.S. 574, 584, Mr. Justice Harlan, delivering the opinion of the court, remarked: "While some of the adjudged cases indicate distrust of confessions which are not judicial, it is certain, as observed by Baron Parke in Regina v. Baldry, 2 Den. Cr. Cas. 430, 445, that the rule against their admissibility has been sometimes carried too far, and in its application justice and common sense have too frequently been sacrificed at the shrine of mercy. A confession, if freely and voluntarily made, is evidence of the most satisfactory character. Such a confession, said Eyre, C.B., 1 Leach, 263, `is deserving of the highest credit, because it is presumed to flow from the strongest sense of guilt, and, therefore, it is admitted as proof of the crime to which it refers.' Elementary writers of authority concur in saying that, while from the very nature of such evidence it must be subjected to careful scrutiny and received with great caution, a deliberate, voluntary confession of guilt is among the most effectual proofs in the law, and constitutes the strongest evidence against the party making it that can be given of the facts stated in such confession. 1 Greenleaf Ev. § 215; 1 Archbold Cr. Pl. 125; 1 Phillips Ev. 533-34; Starkie Ev. 73.

"But the presumption upon which weight is given to such evidence, namely, that one who is innocent will not imperil his safety or prejudice his interests by an untrue statement, ceases when the confession appears to have been made either in consequence of inducements of a temporal nature, held out by one in authority, touching the charge preferred, or because of a threat or promise by or in the presence of such person, which, operating upon the fears or hopes of the accused, in reference to the charge, deprives him of that freedom of will or self control essential to make his confession voluntary within the meaning of the law. Tested by these conditions, there seems to have been no reason to exclude the confession of the accused; for the existence of any such inducements, threats or promises seems to have been negatived by the statement of the circumstances under which it was made."

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

The same rule that the confession must be voluntary is applied to cases where the accused has been examined before a magistrate, in the course of which examination the confession is made, as allowed and restricted by statute in England and in this country in many of the States. Gr. Ev. § 224. But it is held that there is a well defined distinction between an examination when the person testifies as a witness and when he is examined as a party accused; People v. Mondon, 103 N.Y. 211; State v. Garvey, 25 La. Ann. 191; and that where the accused is sworn, any confession he may make is deprived of its voluntary character, though there is a contrariety of opinion on this point. Gr. Ev. § 225; State v. Gilman, 51 Maine, 215; Commonwealth v. Clark, 130 Penn. St. 641; People v. Kelley, 47 California, 125. The fact that he is in custody and manacled does not necessarily render his statement involuntary, nor is that necessarily the effect of popular excitement shortly preceding. Sparf v. United States, 156 U.S. 51; Pierce v. United States, 160 U.S. 355; State v. Gorham, 67 Vermont, 365; State v. Ingram, 16 Kansas, 14. And it is laid down that it is not essential to the admissibility of a confession that it should appear that the person was warned that what he said would be used against him, but on the contrary, if the confession was voluntary, it is sufficient though it appear that he was not so warned. Joy on Confessions, *45, *48, and cases cited.

In the case at bar defendant was not put under oath, and made no objection to answering the questions propounded. The commissioner testified that the statement was made freely and voluntarily, and no evidence to the contrary was adduced. Nor did defendant when testifying on his own behalf testify to the contrary. He testified merely that the commissioner examined him "without giving him the benefit of counsel or warning him of his right of being represented by counsel, or in any way informing him of his right to be thus represented." He did not testify that he did not know that he had a right to refuse to answer the questions, or that; if he had known it, he would not have answered. His answers were explanations, and he appeared not to be unwilling to avail himself of that mode of averting suspicion. It is true that, while he was not sworn, he made the statement before a commissioner who was investigating a charge against him, as he was informed; he was in custody but not in irons; there had been threats of mobbing him the night before the examination; he did not have the aid of counsel; and he was not warned that the statement might be used against him or advised that he need not answer. These were matters which went to the weight or credibility of what he said of an incriminating character, but as he was not confessing guilt but the contrary, we think that, under all the circumstances disclosed, they were not of themselves sufficient to require his answers to be excluded on the ground of being involuntary as matter of law.

When there is a conflict of evidence as to whether a confession is or is not voluntary, if the ceurt decides that it is admissible, the question may be left to the jury with the direction that they should reject the confession if upon the whole evidence they are satisfied it was not the voluntary act of the defendant. Commonwealth v. Preece, 140 Mass. 276; People v. Howes, 81 Michigan, 396; Thomas v. State, 84 Georgia, 613; Hardy v. United States, 3 Dist. Col. App. 35. The question here, however, is simply upon the admissibility of the statement; and we are not prepared to hold that there was error in its admission in view of its nature and the evidence of its voluntary character; the absence of any threat, compulsion or inducement; or assertion or indication of fear; or even of such influence as the administration of an oath has been supposed to exert.

Judgment affirmed.


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