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Where a coerced confession constitutes a part of the evidence before the jury and a general verdict is returned, no one can say what credit and weight the jury gave to the confession. Even though there may have been sufficient evidence, apart from the coerced confession, to support a judgment of conviction, the admission in evidence, over objection, of the coerced confession vitiates the judgment because it violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Payne, a mentally dull 19-year-old Negro with a fifth-grade education, was convicted in a state court of first degree murder and sentenced to death. His employer, J.M. Robertson, was found in his office dead or dying from crushing blows inflicted upon his head. More than $ 450 was missing from the cash drawer. As Robertson’s employee, he was suspected of the crime. He was interrogated that night at his home by the police, but they did not then arrest him. Near 11 a. m. the next day, he was arrested without a warrant and placed in a cell on the first floor of the city jail. At his trial, there was admitted in evidence, over his objection, a confession shown by undisputed evidence to have been obtained in the following circumstances: He was arrested without a warrant and never taken before a magistrate or advised of his right to remain silent or to have counsel, as required by state law. After being held incommunicado for three days without counsel, advisor or friend, and with very little food, he confessed after being told by the Chief of Police that "there would be 30 or 40 people there in a few minutes that wanted to get him" and that, if he would tell the truth, the Chief of Police probably would keep them from coming in. The court instructed the jury to disregard the said confession if they found it was not voluntarily made. The jury returned a general verdict finding Payne guilty of first degree murder as charged and assessed the penalty of death by electrocution.
Were Payne’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights violated in the process of his arrest and interrogation, thereby warranting a reversal of his conviction and death sentence?
That Payne was not physically tortured affords no answer to the question whether the confession was coerced, for "there is torture of mind as well as body; the will is as much affected by fear as by force. . . . A confession by which life becomes forfeit must be the expression of free choice." The undisputed evidence in this case showed that Payne, a mentally dull 19-year-old youth, (1) was arrested without a warrant, (2) was denied a hearing before a magistrate at which he would have been advised of his right to remain silent and of his right to counsel, as required by Arkansas statutes, (3) was not advised of his right to remain silent or of his right to counsel, (4) was held incommunicado for three days, without counsel, advisor or friend, and though members of his family tried to see him they were turned away, and he was refused permission to make even one telephone call, (5) was denied food for long periods, and, finally, (6) was told by the chief of police "that there would be 30 or 40 people there in a few minutes that wanted to get him," which statement created such fear in petitioner as immediately produced the "confession." It seemed obvious from the totality of this course of conduct, and particularly the culminating threat of mob violence, that the confession was coerced and did not constitute an "expression of free choice," and that its use before the jury, over Payne’s objection, deprived him of "that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice," and, hence, denied him due process of law, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.