Brown v. Mississippi 297 U.S. 278 (1936)

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BROWN v. MISSISSIPPI 297 U.S. 278 (1936)

In this landmark decision, the Court for the first time held unconstitutional on due process grounds the use of a coerced confession in a state criminal proceeding. In a unanimous opinion reflecting outrage at the judicial system of Mississippi as well as at its law enforcement officers, Chief Justice charles evans hughes found difficult to imagine methods "more revolting to the sense of justice" than those used by the state in this case. The record showed that prolonged "physical torture" of black suspects extorted their confessions; they were tried in a rush without adequate defense, were convicted solely on the basis of the confessions which they repudiated, and were quickly sentenced to death. The transcript read "like pages torn from some medieval account.…"

Yet the state supreme court, over dissenting opinions, had sustained the convictions on the basis of arguments later used by the state before the Supreme Court: under twining v. jersey (1908) the Constitution did not protect against compulsory self-incrimination in state courts, and counsel for the prisoners had not made a timely motion for exclusion of the confessions after proving coercion. To these arguments, Hughes replied, first, "Compulsion by torture to extort a confession is a different matter.… The rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand" except by a denial of due process of law. The state could regulate its own criminal procedure only on condition that it observed the fundamental principles of liberty and justice. Second, Hughes regarded counsel's technical error as irrelevant compared to the fact that the wrong committed by the state was so fundamental that it made the whole proceeding a "mere pretense of a trial" and rendered the convictions void.

Brown did not revolutionalize state criminal procedure or abolish third-degree methods. But it proved to be the foundation for thirty years of decisions on police interrogation and confessions, finally resulting in an overruling of Twining and a constitutional law intended by the fourteenth amendment.

Leonard W. Levy

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Brown v. Mississippi 297 U.S. 278 (1936)

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Brown v. Mississippi 297 U.S. 278 (1936)