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United States v. Handy

decided. : June 9, 1955.


Author: Hastie

Before BIGGS, Chief Judge, and MARIS, GOODRICH, McLAUGHLIN, KALODNER, STALEY and HASTIE, Circuit Judges.

HASTIE, Circuit Judge.

In this habeas corpus proceeding the relator, a Pennsylvania state prisoner under sentence of death for murder, is contending that he was tried under such prejudicial circumstances and improper influences that it becomes the duty of a federal court to invalidate the state conviction as a denial of due process of law and to order a new trial.

The district court originally dismissed the petition without permitting relator to introduce evidence in support of his contentions. 97 F.Supp. 930. But on appeal this court ruled "that the relator must be afforded the opportunity to prove the allegations set out in his petition for habeas corpus insofar as they relate to the alleged atmosphere of hysteria and prejudice prevailing at his trial, including any issues raised by Judge Boyer's asserted visits to the courtroom during Darcy's trial, since the undisputed and incontrovertible facts as shown by the record do not countervail the allegations of hysteria and prejudice." 3 Cir., 203 F.2d 407, 409. Accordingly, the case was remanded to the district court for a full hearing on the indicated issues.

In compliance with our mandate the district court permitted the parties to make an elaborate showing of the circumstances under which the relator was tried in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for felonious homicide in the commission of an armed robbery. Although the relator had been contesting his conviction for more than six years, this was the first opportunity given him to introduce evidence to establish facts not apparent on the face of the original trial record which, in his view, would make clear that the trial was fundamentally unfair. In affording this opportunity, the district court devoted eight days to the testimony of more than thirty witnesses and the introduction of much documentary evidence. As a result, that court and this reviewing court now for the first time have been able to exercise fully informed judgment as to the essential fairness of the murder trial. It was specially important that this be done because there had been no taking of testimony on the relevant circumstances of the trial before any Pennsylvania state court in which the conduct of relator's trial had been challenged as essentially unfair. We emphasize this because we believe it is a virtue of our system of justice, as implemented by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that it does not send a convicted person to his death without according him one full opportunity to prove charges of unfair trial which are not patently frivolous. The important thing here is that relator has now had that chance.

After full hearing and consideration of all of the evidence the district court was satisfied that relator's new proof was insufficient to establish that his trial had been fundamentally unfair. 130 F.Supp. 270. We agree with that conclusion.

Relator has attempted to show that he was tried in a community so aroused against him that a fair trial was impossible, or at best so unlikely that a decent legal system must permit a second trial. Such a conclusion has been reached where the physical presence of a mob or a threat of mob violence has dominated a criminal trial. Frank v. Mangum, 1915, 237 U.S. 309, 35 S. Ct. 582, 59 L. Ed. 969; Moore v. Dempsey, 1923, 261 U.S. 86, 43 S. Ct. 265, 67 L. Ed. 543; Powell v. State of Alabama, 1932, 287 U.S. 45, 53 S. Ct. 55, 77 L. Ed. 158. But on the evidence adduced in the district court it is clear, as that court found, that relator's trial was conducted with dignity and decorum and without any hostile congregation or demonstration at or near the place of trial. Indeed, during much of the trial courtroom was not crowded. Certainly, the trial was not attended by any threat of violence or manifestation of mass hysteria. Moreover, a clear and elaborate showing was made to the district court that throughout relator's trial the jury was kept under strict guard, apart from other persons and without access to newspapers, radio, television or any other source of news or opinion.

However, the relator suggests that even though the jury was segregated and the community was outwardly calm during the trial, antagonism and hostility toward him were so great and widespread during the period immediately preceding the trial, that the probability of a prejudiced verdict from any jury of the vicinage was a greater risk than a society which insists upon equal justice under law can take. A combination of unchallenged facts has made it very difficult for the relator to establish such extreme and pervasive hostility. The record of the original trial, which is before the court in this collateral proceeding, shows that each of the prospective jurors was subjected to a searching voir dire examination. The questioning of the fourteen persons who became the jurors and alternates for this trial takes up some seventy pages of the typewritten record. Their responses indicated that they were capable of making and disposed to make a fair and objective evaluation of the evidence. Beyond that, original counsel for the relator was sufficiently satisfied with the responses of these veniremen so that he used less than half of the peremptory challenges available to him. And he did not at any time ask for a change of venue. Concerning the significance of this, see Stroble v. State of California, 1952, 343 U.S. 181, 194, 72 S. Ct. 599, 96 L. Ed. 872; United States v. Rosenberg, 2 Cir., 1953, 200 F.2d 666, 669. While to a majority of this court these facts alone have not seemed so compelling as to preclude an independent showing that the trial was dominated by prejudice and hostility, they certainly make the undertaking very difficult. To meet this difficult burden of proof relator has relied largely upon the daily newspaper accounts and editorial comments published in the community during the trial of two of relator's alleged confederates, which ended only three days before he himself was required to stand trial. We have examined all of this material. The evidence does not indicate, as relator would infer, that the jurors who tried relator were waiting in or near the courtroom during the period of the trial of his confederates. At most it indicates that during the two weeks immediately preceding relator's trial the community in general had experienced a revival and quickening of interest in the homicide attended by many expressions of indignation against its perpetrators. But it does not appear that feeling ran so high or that hostility toward the relator was so intense and so general as to make it seem incredible that the search for a satisfactory jury would yield twelve persons as open minded about this case as the jurors here claimed to have been. The situation certainly would have justified a decision to wait a while before trying the relator, or else to try him in another community if trial immediately after the conviction of his confederates was deemed important. We may be persuaded that in the circumstances it would have been wise to take such precautions, yet not be convinced that failure to follow the wiser course was a denial of the essence of fair trial. The due process concept does not embrace all that a very careful and perceptive judge might do to protect a trial against emotional factors. It covers no more than the minimum protection which, consistent with our present ideas of justice, every court must afford. In this view of the reach of due process, we can not say that trial of relator at the time and place in question was a denial of constitutionally required protection.

Relator makes a second contention. Judge Hiram Keller presided over relator's trial. But another judge of the same court, Honorable Calvin Boyer, was much in and about the courtroom during the course of this trial. Judge Boyer had just completed a trial at which relator's confederates had been convicted of first degree murder without recommendation of mercy and, according to the press, he had commended the jury for its verdict. It is relator's contention that Judge Boyer's participation in and influence upon the trial were so unfair and prejudicial as to amount to a denial of due process of law. Here too the facts are now for the first time fully disclosed in the record. Relator's trial began June 7 and he was convicted June 14. There were daily morning and afternoon sessions. It now appears that every day of this trial Judge Boyer spent some time, on occasions several hours, in the courtroom. He even attended an evening session. At times during the trial Judge Boyer joined Judge Keller on the bench for whispered consultations within view of the jury, although there is nothing to suggest that the jury could hear what was being said. It is also admitted that at least one such consultation was designed for the guidance of Judge Keller in the making of a trial ruling. However, there is no claim that any erroneous or prejudicial ruling resulted from consultation between the presiding judge and his colleague. Finally, during Judge Keller's charge to the jury, Judge Boyer sat facing the jurors within the enclosure reserved for members of the bar and participants in the trial.

It seems to be agreed that the jurors knew who Judge Boyer was. The evidence makes it very probable that they also knew that he had just completed the trial at which relator's co-defendants had been convicted and sentenced to death. Moreover, it had been reported in the press that Judge Boyer had commended the jury for the first degree verdict against the co-defendants with its mandatory death penalty. Relator also makes the point that, while his trial was in progress, the press quoted statements of Judge Boyer in another case reasonably calculated to indicate that the jurist was engaged in an effort to make it clear that the community would deal very sternly with wrongdoers from Philadelphia, a category which included the relator. But this last incident could not have affected the jury in relator's case, because the jurors had no access to any source of news. Nevertheless, relator argues that the overall effect of this situation was to make Judge Boyer's impressive record of attendance at this trial an intolerably coercive influence upon the trial jury. But we think this is attaching too much significance to the jury's observation that a judge other than the trial judge was showing much interest in the case. Certainly Judge Boyer was privileged to attend and observe proceedings of the court of which he was a judge. His presence in itself was not an impropriety. Even if the jurors identified him as an official who was hostile to the relator, we think it would be necessary to show that he had said or done something prejudicial to the defendant during his stay in the courtroom before the fact of his presence and manifest interest could raise a substantial due process question.

The present petition charges one such act and this allegation has given us great concern. The relator alleged and attempted to prove that during the trial Judge Boyer actively helped the prosecutor. Specifically, there was testimony from witnesses who may well not have been unbiased that on one occasion Judge Boyer passed a written message to the prosecutor with the result that the prosecutor made a point to the presiding judge about an item in the charge. The government introduced evidence for the purpose of disproving this contention. The government's showing was less than overwhelming. Yet it was not unsubstantial. There was a sufficient conflict of testimony to make it necessary for the district court as the trier of facts in this habeas corpus proceeding to resolve the factual question whether Judge Boyer did or did not coach and advise the prosecutor as alleged. The district court made a specific finding that this alleged occurrence did not take place. On the record we think that we are not justified in disturbing that finding. And absent some such improper partisan participation by Judge Boyer in the trial, we cannot say that his rather striking manifestation of extraordinary interest in the proceedings constituted a denial of due process of law. It is established constitutional doctrine that our limited function in correcting fundamental impropriety in state trials challenged under the due process clause makes it necessary that we leave alone many dubious occurrences in state procedure which we would proscribe if they should happen in a federal court. With Betts v. Brady, 1942, 316 U.S. 455, 62 S. Ct. 1252, 86 L. Ed. 1595, contrast Johnson v. Zerbst, 1938, 304 U.S. 458, 58 S. Ct. 1019, 82 L. Ed. 1461.

No other point urged by relator warrants appellate interference with the decision of the district court or requires particular comment.

The judgment will be affirmed.

KALODNER, Circuit Judge (dissenting).

Under Pennsylvania law the jury fixes the penalty in first degree murder cases - imprisonment for life, or death.*fn1

It is against the forefront of that grim and grave circumstance that Judge Boyer's conduct in the Darcy trial must be viewed, weighed and assessed and the issue determined whether Darcy was denied the due process guaranteed him by the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so it must ever be kept in mind that "'due process of law' in the enforcement of a state's criminal law * * * expresses a demand for civilized standards of law" and "judicial review of that guaranty of the Fourteenth Amendment inescapably imposes * * * an exercise of judgment upon the whole course of the proceedings in order to ascertain whether they offend those canons of decency and fairness which express the notions of justice of English-speaking peoples even toward those charged with the most heinous offenses."*fn2

In my opinion the majority has failed to discern and assess the impact of Judge Boyer's conduct in the Darcy trial from the point of view, at the minimum, of the jury's role in determining Darcy's fate - life or death.

I am of the opinion, too, that the majority erred in another important respect - in treating Judge Boyer's conduct as an "occurrence", albeit "dubious", "in state procedure", immune as such, from federal judicial remedial action.

Let us first consider the issue of Judge Boyer's role in the Darcy trial.

Bucks County, where Darcy was tried, at the time had a population of approximately 144,000 - 75 percent rural, 25 percent urban. Judge Boyer, then 72 years of age, was a native of Bucks County and had spent his entire life in the community. He had been a judge of the Bucks County Courts for some eighteen years. The extent to which he was known in the county is demonstrated by the fact that he had been its district attorney, twice by appointment and once by election; he had twice been elected for 10-year terms as judge (once in 1931 and again in 1941).

Judge Boyer had presided at the trial of Darcy's two confederates which terminated Friday, June 4th with a verdict of guilty and the imposition of death sentences by the jury. Judge Boyer had complimented the jury on its action, stating: "I don't see how you could, under the evidence, have reached any other verdict. Your verdict may have a very wholesome effect on other young men in all vicinities who may come to realize the seriousness of the folly in which so many young men indulge in these days. The only hope of stemming the tide of such crime by youth is to impose the law which you have indicated by your decision."*fn3

Three days later, Darcy was placed on trial in the same court house in spite of the fact that he had previously been granted a "severance".*fn4 While I agree with the majority that this circumstance, standing alone, did not constitute denial of due process, it merits most serious consideration in evaluating the impact of Judge Boyer's conduct in the Darcy trial since the trial of the confederates had been widely reported not only in the local newspapers and via radio but in nearby Philadelphia newspapers which had a considerable circulation in Bucks County.*fn5

President Judge Hiram H. Keller of the Bucks County Court presided at Darcy's trial. He had, at the time, served some eighteen years as president judge.

It may be well at this point to advert to the factual findings which the majority made on the score of Judge Boyer's presence in the courtroom during Darcy's trial:

"Honorable Calvin Boyer was much in and about the courtroom during the course of this trial * * *.

"* * * every day of this trial Judge Boyer spent some time, on occasions several hours, in the courtroom. He ...

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