Massiah v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Petitioner was recorded by a co-conspirator with the aid of the authorities. Evidence was exculpatory.

Facts of the case

After Winston Massiah was indicted on federal narcotics charges, he retained counsel, pleaded not guilty, and was released on bail. While on bail, Massiah had a conversation with one of his codefendants in the absence of counsel. Unknown to Massiah, the codefendant became a government informer and allowed police to install a radio transmitter under the seat of his car. A nearby government agent listened to the entire conversation by way of this transmitter. Massiah made several incriminating statements. At trial, the agent who listened to the conversation testified to the incriminating statements over Massiah’s objection. The codefendant never testified. A jury convicted Massiah and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.

Question

Whether the petitioner’s . . . Sixth Amendment rights were violated by the use in evidence against him of incriminating statements which government agents had deliberately elicited from him after he had been indicted and in the absence of his retained counsel.

Answer

Yes. The Supreme Court used the previous Spano rule. The Court did not question that in this case . . . it was entirely proper to continue an investigation of the petitioner. It simply held that the defendant’s own incriminating statements, obtained by federal agents under these circumstances . . ., could not constitutionally be used by the prosecution as evidence against him at his trial.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed. In an opinion by Stewart, J., the Court held that under the Sixth Amendment’s guaranty of defendant’s right to assistance of counsel, defendant’s incriminating statements, elicited by government agents after he had been indicted and in the absence of his counsel, were not admissible at his trial. The Court further held that defendant was denied the basic protections of U.S. Const. amend. VI when there was used against him at his trial evidence of his own incriminating words, which federal agents had deliberately and secretly elicited from him after he had been indicted and in the absence of his counsel. The Court found that any secret interrogation of defendant, from and after the finding of the indictment, without the protection afforded by the presence of counsel, contravened the basic dictates of fairness in the conduct of the criminal cause and the fundamental rights of the accused. The Court noted that defendant was as much entitled to aid of counsel during the critical period after arraignment and until the beginning of trial as at the trial itself. Here, defendant was seriously imposed upon since he did not even know that he was under interrogation by a government agent.

  • Case Brief: 1964
  • Petitioner: Winston Massiah
  • Respondent: United States
  • Decided by: Warren Court

Citation: 377 US 201 (1964)
Argued: Mar 3, 1964
Decided: May 18, 1964
Granted Jun 10, 1963