Stovall v. Denno

Facts of the Case

In the kitchen of a doctor’s Long Island home, an assailant fatally stabbed Dr. Behrendt and stabbed the his wife 11 times, requiring major surgery to save her life. Two days later, five policemen and two members of the district attorney’s staff brought defendant Stovall, who was an African-American male suspect in the crime, to Mrs. Behrendt’s hospital room without affording him any time to retain counsel. He was the only African-American in the room, was handcuffed to one of the officers and was directed to say a few words for voice identification. An officer asked Mrs. Behrendt whether he was the man, and she identified him from her hospital bed. At Stovall’s murder trial in New York state court, Mrs. Behrendt made an in-court identification of Stovall, and both she and the officers testified to her hospital room identification. Stovall was convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed. Stovall then filed a habeas corpus petition in federal district court challenging the constitutionality of Mrs. Behrendt’s identification of him, which led to his conviction. The district court dismissed the petition the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. Stovall was granted a writ or certiorari.


(1) Can the rulings in United States v. Wade and Gilbert v. California be applied retroactively?(2) Did Mrs. Berheldt’s identification of Stovall deprive him of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process?


No, No. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. delivered the opinion of the 6-3 majority. The Court held that the decision to retroactively apply rulings of criminal procedure depended on the potential impact of that ruling on the fact-finding at trial. In this case, the identification, while a crucial stage of the investigation and trial, could be conducted well or poorly regardless of the presence of counsel. The Court held that the circumstances of this case were such that, given the uncertainty of Mrs. Berheldt’s medical status, the identification could not have been conducted any other way. Also, the retroactive application of the rulings in United States v. Wade and Gilbert v. California would greatly disrupt the justice system.In his concurring opinion, Justice Byron R. White wrote that the identification in the hospital room was not constitutionally improper. Justice John M. Harlan and Justice Potter Stewart joined in the concurrence.Justice William O. Douglas wrote a dissent and argued that the right to have counsel present at an identification should be granted retroactively.Justice Abe Fortas wrote a dissent and argued that the State’s use of the hospital identification in the trial was prejudicial and violated Stovall’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.In his dissent, Justice Hugo L. Black argued that people put in prison by evidence that is later found unconstitutional should not be denied the benefit of those rulings. He also argued that the Court’s case-by-case determination of due process granted the Court too much power and failed to give the government a solid constitutional standard.

Case Information

  • Citation: 388 US 293 (1967)
  • Argued: Feb 16, 1967
  • Decided Jun 12, 1967Granted: Jun 20, 1966