Brady v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The Petitioner plead guilty to kidnapping after his co-defendant decided to confess and testify against him. The voluntariness of the Petitioner’s plea was at issue.

Facts of the case

Robert M. Brady pleaded not guilty to kidnapping. After learning that his codefendant confessed and would be available to testify against him, Brady changed his plea to guilty. The crime had a maximum penalty of death, but a U.S. statute allowed the death penalty only if the verdict of a jury recommends. The judge sentenced him to 50 years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to 30 years. 8 years later, Brady sought relief in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, claiming his guilty plea was not voluntarily given because the possibility of the death penalty coerced his plea. The district court denied relief and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed, finding that Brady changed his plea because of the codefendants actions. The court held that an intervening decision United States v. Jackson , which held the death penalty unconstitutional because it imposes an impermissible burden on an accused’s Fifth Amendment right to not plead guilty and Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, did not apply.


Whether Jackson requires the invalidation of every plea of guilty entered under Section:1201(a), at least when the fear of death is shown to have been a factor in the plea?


“The majority first analyzed the United States v. Jackson, which like the instant case dealt with Section:1202(a). In Jackson, the the District Court dismissed the 1201(a) count of the indictment, holding the statute unconstitutional because it permitted imposition of the death sentence only upon a jury’s recommendation and thereby made the risk of death the price of a jury trial. This Court held the statute valid, except for the death penalty provision

  • with respect to the latter, the Court agreed with the trial court ‘that the death penalty provision … imposes an impermissible burden upon the exercise of a constitutional right …. Further, the Jackson court observed the problem was to determine ‘whether the Constitution permits the establishment of such a death penalty, applicable only to those defendants who assert the right to contest their guilt before a jury.’ The inevitable effect of the provision was said to be to discourage assertion of the Fifth Amendment right n
    ot to plead guilty and to deter exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to demand a jury trial. Because the legitimate goal of limiting the death penalty to cases in which a jury recommends it could be achieved without penalizing those defendants who plead not guilty and elect a jury trial, the death penalty provision ‘needlessly penalize(d) the assertion of a constitutional right,’ and was therefore unconstitutional.
    The majority rejected the petitioner’s argument that Jackson requires the invalidation of every plea of guilty entered under that section, at least when the fear of death is shown to have been a factor in the plea. To the contrary, the majority observed, Jackson ruled neither that all pleas of guilty encouraged by the fear of a possible death sentence are involuntary pleas nor that such encouraged pleas are invalid whether involuntary or not. Jackson prohibits the imposition of the death penalty under 1201(a), but that decision neither fashioned a new standard for judging the validity of guilty pleas nor mandated a new application of the test theretofore fashioned by courts and since reiterated that guilty pleas are valid if both ‘voluntary’ and ‘intelligent.’
    Additionally, the court recognized that waivers of constitutional rights in this case the right to a trial before a jury or judge not only must be voluntary but must be knowing, intelligent acts done with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences. Based on the facts before it, Brady’s plea was not invalid. The majority relied on how the trial judge in 1959 found the plea voluntary before accepting it
  • the District Court in 1968, after an evidentiary hearing, found that the plea was voluntarily made
  • the Court of Appeals specifically approved the finding of voluntariness.
    The voluntariness of Brady’s plea can be determined only by considering all of the relevant circumstances surrounding it.
    Insofar as the voluntariness of his plea is concerned, there is little to differentiate Brady from (1) the defendant, in a jurisdiction where the judge and jury have the same range of sentencing power, who pleads guilty because his lawyer advises him that the judge will very probably be more lenient than the jury
  • (2) the defendant, in a jurisdiction where the judge alone has sentencing power, who is advised by counsel that the judge is normally more lenient with defendants who plead guilty than with those who go to trial
  • (3) the defendant who is permitted by prosecutor and judge to plead guilty to a lesser offense included in the offense charged
  • and (4) the defendant who pleads guilty to certain counts with the understanding that other charges will be dropped. In each of these situations, as in Brady’s case, the defendant might never plead guilty absent the possibility or certainty that the plea will result in a lesser penalty than the sentence that could be imposed after a tria
    l and a verdict of guilty. We decline to hold, however, that a guilty plea is compelled and invalid under the Fifth Amendment whenever motivated by the defendant’s desire to accept the certainty or probability of a lesser penalty rather than face a wider range of possibilities extending from acquittal to conviction and a higher penalty authorized by law for the crime charged.
    Further, the majority relied on Bram and how the petitioner’s confession depended upon whether it was compelled within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment. To be admissible, a confession must be ‘free and voluntary: that is, must not be extracted by any sort of threats or violence, nor obtained by any direct or implied promises, however slight, nor by the exertion of any improper influence.’ Also, that Bram is not inconsistent with our holding that Brady’s plea was not compelled even though the law promised him a lesser maximum penalty if he did not go to trial.
    The voluntariness of plea of guilty must be governed by the following standard (A) plea of guilty entered by one fully aware of the direct consequences, including the actual value of any commitments made to him by the court, prosecutor, or his own counsel, must stand unless induced by threats (or promises to discontinue improper harassment), misrepresentation (including unfulfilled or unfulfillable promises), or perhaps by promises that are by their nature improper as having no proper relationship to the prosecutor’s business (e.g. bribes).
    Finally, the majority observed that the plea was intelligently made, in that he was advised by competent counsel, he was made aware of the nature of the charge against him, and there was nothing to indicate that he was incompetent or otherwise not in control of his mental faculties
  • once his confederate had pleaded guilty and became available to testify, he chose to plead guilty, perhaps to ensure that he would face no more than life imprisonment or a term of years.


    Despite the fact that defendant’s plea of guilty may have been motivated in part by a desire to avoid a possible death penalty, the conviction was confirmed because the trial court had been convinced both that the plea had been voluntarily and intelligently made and the court had no reason to doubt that his solemn admission of guilt had been truthful. The Supreme Court held that, after considering all the relevant circumstances surrounding defendant’s plea, there was nothing in the record that suggested that his admissions were anything but the truth, and affirmed the acceptance of the plea.

    • Case Brief: 1970
    • Petitioner: Robert M. Brady
    • Respondent: United States
    • Decided by: Burger Court

    Citation: 397 US 742 (1970)
    Argued: Nov 18, 1969
    Decided: May 4, 1970
    Granted Jun 23, 1969