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Escobedo v. Illinois


One of three important cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s on the subject of the right to counsel, Escobedo v. Illinois 378 U.S. 478, 4 Ohio Misc. 197, 84 S.Ct. 1758, 12 L.Ed.2d 977 (U.S.Ill. 1964), was a far-reaching decision which held for the first time that defendants had a right to counsel even before they were indicted for a particular crime. However, the decision was overshadowed by the high court's Miranda decision two years later, and later decisions by both the Supreme Court and lower courts indicated the application of the decision in Escobedo was to be limited to its facts. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has never directly overruled Escobedo.

The case involved Danny Escobedo, who was arrested on the night of January 19, 1960, for the murder of his brother-in-law, but was released after contacting his lawyer. The lawyer told him not to answer any more questions if the police rearrested him. Ten days later, he was arrested a second time and made a request to contact his attorney repeatedly. This request was denied.

His attorney then arrived at the police station and requested to see Escobedo but was refused permission to see him. The police then told Escobedo that his alleged coconspirator in the shooting of his brother-in-law had confessed and implicated Escobedo. Escobedo demanded to confront his coconspirator, and when he was brought face-to-face with him he said, "I didn't shoot Manuel (Escobedo's brother-in-law), you did it." After this admission of his involvement in the crime, police were able to obtain a more elaborate written confession, and Escobedo was eventually convicted of murder. Escobedo appealed his conviction, claiming his confession was obtained without his lawyer being present in violation of his right to counsel, and should be thrown out.

Escobedo's case reached the Supreme Court at a precipitous time. Just six weeks before, the high court had decided massiah v. united states, 377 U.S. 201, 84 S.Ct. 1199, 12 L.Ed.2d 246 (U.S.N.Y. 1964), in which the Court ruled for the first time that the sixth amendment right to counsel attaches once an individual has been indicted. That case involved a defendant who made a statement to an accomplice after he had been indicted, gotten an attorney, and had been released on bail. Unknown to the defendant, his accomplice was working with the police. The Court held that the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights had been violated because the police had used the accomplice to elicit incriminatory statements after the right to counsel had attached.

The Supreme Court in Escobedo reached a similar result in a 5 to 4 decision. Writing for the majority, Justice arthur goldberg first stated that Escobedo's right to counsel did not depend on whether, at the time of interrogation, the authorities have secured a formal indictment. In overturning Escobedo's conviction and ruling that his right to counsel had been violated, Goldberg then enunciated a somewhat complicated holding that set out numerous benchmarks in determining whether a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated.

Wrote Goldberg: "We hold, therefore, that where, as here, the investigation is no longer a general inquiry into an unsolved crime but has begun to focus on a particular suspect, the suspect has been taken into police custody, the police carry out a process of interrogations that lends itself to eliciting incriminating statements, the suspect has requested and been denied an opportunity to consult with his lawyer, and the police have not effectively warned him of his absolute constitutional right to remain silent, the accused has been denied 'The Assistance of Counsel' in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution as 'made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment,' and that no statement elicited by the police during the interrogation may be used against him at a criminal trial."

The high court decision in Escobedo had many observers theorizing the Court would try to establish a broad right to counsel utilizing the Sixth Amendment whenever police took a suspect into custody. However, two years later, the high court changed course in miranda v. arizona 384 U.S. 436, 10 Ohio Misc. 9, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (U.S.Ariz. 1966), using the fifth amendment right against self-incrimination to hold that statements obtained from defendants during incommunicado interrogation in a police-dominated atmosphere, without full warning of constitutional rights, were inadmissible. Miranda made the crucial question whether a defendant was in custody or other wise significantly deprived of his freedom of movement, rather than the "focus of investigation" test enunciated in Escobedo.

Since the Miranda decision, most Supreme Court and lower court cases mentioning the right to counsel have relied on the Fifth Amendment and Miranda, and those that have relied on the Sixth generally lean on the earlier Massiah decision, rather than the more complex tests of Escobedo. Escobedo has been limited by the Supreme Court and lower courts to only apply to the facts of its case, and since those facts were unusual, it is rarely invoked by a court as primary law when determining whether the right to counsel exists.

further readings

Cook, Joseph. 2002. Constitutional Rights of the Accused. St. Paul, Minn.: West.

LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy L. King. 1999. Criminal Procedure. St. Paul, Minn.: West.


Prisoners' Rights.

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