Procunier v. Atchley

PETITIONER: R. K. Procunier, Director of the California Department of Corrections
RESPONDENT: Veron Atchley
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 400 US 446 (1971)
ARGUED: Nov 18, 1970
DECIDED: Jan 19, 1971
GRANTED: Feb 24, 1970

Charles A. Legge - for the respondent
Robert R. Granucci - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1959, Veron Atchley was convicted of murdering his wife by shooting her six times. The star witness at trial was Atchley’s insurance agent. The agent met with Atchley after his arrest to talk about the life insurance policy on his wife. During this conversation Atchley admitted to lying in wait for his wife with a gun, but said that the shooting was an accident. After notifying police, the insurance agent returned with a hidden recording device. Atchley made the same admission. Over Atchley’s objection the tape was admitted at trial. The Supreme Court of California affirmed the conviction.

Atchley then sought habeus corpus relief in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, arguing that the tape was an unconstitutional involuntary confession. The district court agreed, ordering a new hearing on the issue of voluntariness. The district court held that the trial could not have reliably determined whether the confession was voluntary. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.


Did the district court err in refusing to apply a presumption of correctness to the California state courts’ finding that Atchley’s tape recorded statement was voluntary?

Media for Procunier v. Atchley

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 18, 1970 in Procunier v. Atchley

Warren E. Burger:

We’ll hear arguments in number 44, Precunier against Atchley.

Mr. Granucci, you may proceed whenever you’re ready.

Robert R. Granucci:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This is another chapter, and we hope the final chapter, in a story of a criminal prosecution that commenced in 1958.

This case comes here after the United States District Court in a decision affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, ordered the State of California to hold a new hearing in the State Courts on the question of whether Atchley’s confession was voluntarily given, which confession was introduced to this trial over objection and a lengthy hearing at the trial.

The question have been reviewed and affirmed by Unite-- by a unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court of California and the decisions of the State Courts which were, adverse to Atchley, brought to this Court.

I think the issue that is really presented today is whether a State Supreme Court decision on the merits of a federal claim in a criminal case can be given a presumption of correctness in Federal Habeas Corpus proceedings.

Now, if the answer to that question is in the negative, then the state appellate review of federal constitutional claims in criminal cases is an utter waste of time for everyone concerned, and State Appellate Courts would be well advised to relegate criminal defendants to the Criminal Courts for the immediate litigation of their constitutional arguments.

Now, by way of procedural background, Atchley was convicted of murder in January 1959, after a jury trial in the Superior Court for Butte County, California.

Because he was sentenced to death, and incidentally that sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment and then commuted again to allow him the possibility of parole for which he is presently eligible, his appeal to the California State Supreme Court was automatic.

That Court affirmed the conviction in a unanimous opinion authored by then Associate Justice Traynor, to which we will refer in some detail later.

Suffice to say at this point, the principal issue raised by Atchley on his state appeal was whether his confession was voluntarily made.

The California Supreme Court concluded that it was.

Atchley then came to this Court on a petition for writ of certiorari, which was granted.

Briefs were filed.

The record was filed and the case was argued but after hearing argument and examining the record of the state proceedings, this Court dismissed the writ as improvidently granted.

Shortly thereafter, Atchley filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the District Court for the Northern District of California.

This was denied summarily, and the denial was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In 1967, Atchley filed a second petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal Court for the Northern District of California.

That petition challenged the admission into evidence of a tape recorded confession which he had given to his friend, an insurance agent, one Ray Travers, the same issue that had been presented to the California Supreme Court.

The District Court granted the writ.

It did not say that Atchley’s confession was involuntary.

Indeed, the Court admitted that it could not say that Atchley’s confession was involuntary.

The District Court avoided the necessity of passing on that issue by holding that the procedure followed in the State Trial Court was not fully adequate to achieve a reliable determination that Atchley’s confession was voluntary.

By the order of the District Court, we are relegated to the State Courts for a further hearing on this issue with the possibility of further appeals in the State and Federal Courts, and Atchley loses again.

We say that the District Court erred in refusing to apply the presumption of correctness contained in Title 28 United States Code Section 2254 (d) which was enacted in 1956.

The Trial Court re-- the District Court refused to apply the presumption for two reasons.

One, the District Court concluded that a clear-cut determination of voluntariness did not appear on the State Court record.

Secondly, the District Court stated that the Trial Court had applied an erroneous legal standard.

We respectfully submit that the District Court was wrong for three distinct reasons.