Brewer v. Williams

PETITIONER: Lou V. Brewer, Warden of the Iowa State Penitentiary
RESPONDENT: Robert Anthony Williams aka Anthony Erthel Williams
LOCATION: YMCA of Greater Des Moines

DOCKET NO.: 74-1263
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 430 US 387 (1977)
ARGUED: Oct 04, 1976
DECIDED: Mar 23, 1977
GRANTED: Dec 15, 1975

Robert D. Bartels - for respondent
Richard C. Turner - for petitioner
Richard N. Winders - for petitioner

Facts of the case

Robert Williams escaped from a mental hospital and lived at the Des Moines YMCA. Soon thereafter, a 10-year-old girl disappeared from the YMCA while at her brother’s wrestling match. A boy in the parking lot saw Williams carrying a large bundle to his car with two “skinny and white” legs in it. The next day, police found Williams’ abandoned car about 160 miles east of Des Moines. Williams soon turned himself in to police in Davenport, Iowa. Williams said he would tell police the whole story once he saw his lawyer in Des Moines. Williams spoke with a local attorney and reiterated his intention to confess when he saw his attorney in Des Moines. Davenport police promised not to question Williams during the drive to Des Moines. During the drive, however, the detective asked Williams to show him where the body was hidden. The officer told Williams that the girl’s family wanted to give her a “Christian burial”. Williams, a deeply religious man, eventually gave in to the officer’s questions. He showed police to the girl’s body and was indicted for first degree murder.

At trial, Williams moved to suppress all evidence relating to the car ride conversation, arguing that the questioning violated Williams’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The judge denied the motion, and a jury found Williams guilty. The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Williams petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. The court granted the writ, finding that questioning Williams during the drive violated his right to counsel, and the evidence in question was wrongly admitted at trial. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.


(1) Was Williams denied counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment?

(2) Did Williams waive his right to counsel when he led the detective to the girl’s body?

Media for Brewer v. Williams

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 04, 1976 in Brewer v. Williams

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 23, 1977 in Brewer v. Williams

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in 74-1263, Brewer against Williams will be announced by Mr. Justice Stewart.

Potter Stewart:

This case is here by virtue of the grant of a petition for certiorari to review a judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In this case in Iowa trial jury found the respondent, Robert Williams, guilty of the murder of a 10-year-old girl.

The judgment of conviction was affirmed in the Iowa Supreme Court by a closely divided vote.

In a subsequent habeas corpus proceeding, a Federal District Court ruled that under the United States Constitution, Williams is entitled to a new trial, and a divided Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed.

The question before us is whether the District Court and the Court of Appeals were wrong.

The District Court held that Williams, after he had been arraigned and had consulted with two different lawyers, had been deprived of his constitutionally-protected right to the assistance of counsel during the course of a 160-mile automobile trip from Davenport, Iowa to Des Moines, Iowa in a custody of two police officers.

The Court further found that Williams had not waived the protection of this constitutional guarantee. Accordingly, the District Court held that incriminating information disclosed by Williams to the police officers during the automobile ride was wrongly admitted in evidence against Williams at his Iowa trial.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court and affirmed its judgment.

And for the reasons set out in some detail, in the written opinion filed today, we also agree and accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Although we do not likely affirm the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus in this case, so clear a violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments as here occurred, cannot be ignored.

The pressures on state executive and judicial officers, charged with the administration of the criminal law, are often great, and especially so, when the crime is murder and the victim, a child.

But it is precisely the predictability of these pressures that makes imperative a resolute loyalty to the guarantees that the Constitution extends to us all.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Mr. Justice Marshall, Mr. Justice Powell, and Mr. Justice Stevens, who, along with Mr. Justice Brennan, have joined the opinion of the Court, have also each filed concurring opinions.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Stewart.

In this unusual case today, the Court concedes in its opinion that Mr. Justice Stewart has just summarized that Williams was not threatened or coerced and that he acted voluntarily under his full awareness of his constitutional rights when he guided the police to the place where he had buried the body of the murdered child.

In the face of this, the Court now holds that because Williams was prompted by a statement of the detective not interrogation in the traditional sense, but a statement by the detective that pricked his conscience, his disclosure of how and where he buried the body of the child cannot be given to the jury.

The effect of this is to fulfill a very grisly prophecy made by Justice Cardozo, approximately 50 years ago that someday, some Court might carry what we call the exclusionary rule to the absurd extent that its operative effect would be to exclude the evidence relating to the body of a murder victim and -- but that would be done because of the means by which it was found.

Justice Cardozo then, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of New York, said this.

"The criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered.

A room is searched against the law, and the body of a murdered man is found.

And because the privacy of the home has been infringed, the murderer goes free."

Now here, as Justice Stewart has indicated, a new trial is to be granted, but the evidence of how the police found the body guided there by Williams, the perpetrator must not be given to the jury.

In this holding, the Court regresses in my judgment to playing the grisly game of hide and seek and once more exalting the sporting theory of criminal justice which has been fortunately for the American people experiencing some decline in our jurisprudence.

And with Justices White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist, I categorically reject the extraordinary notion that the police in this case were guilty of unconstitutional misconduct, or any conduct whatever that would justify the bizarre result reached by the Court.

However, I'd like to focus primarily, since Mr. Justice Stewart has set out the basic facts.

I would like to focus on the irrationality of applying the increasingly discredited exclusionary rule to this particular case, this kind of a case.

In his opinion -- in his separate opinion in which he concurs in the judgment of the Court and the opinion of the Court, and the exclusion of this evidence of the body, Mr. Justice Powell intimates that he agrees that there is little sense in applying the exclusionary rule where the evidence suppressed is typically reliable and often the most probative information bearing on the guilt or the innocence of the defendant.

And since he seems to concede that the evidence in question here is highly reliable and probative, his joining the Court's opinion can be explained as I see it only by an insistence that the question has not been presented in the briefs and arguments submitted to us.