Stovall v. Denno

PETITIONER: Theodore Stovall
RESPONDENT: Wilfred Denno, Warden
LOCATION: Berheldt Residence

LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 388 US 293 (1967)
ARGUED: Feb 16, 1967
DECIDED: Jun 12, 1967
GRANTED: Jun 20, 1966

Leon B. Polsky - for the petitioner
William Cahn - for the respondent

Facts of the case

On August 23, 1961, Dr. Paul Berheldt was stabbed to death in the kitchen of his home. His wife was also injured in the attack. The next day, Theodore Stovall was arrested for the murder and promptly arraigned, but he did not yet have counsel. On August 25, although Stovall had still not retained counsel, police brought him to the hospital room where Mrs. Berheldt’s was recovering from surgery to see if she could identify him. Stovall was the only African-American man in the room and was handcuffed to a police officer. Mrs. Berheldt positively identified him after he was directed to say a few words for voice identification purposes. The prosecution used this identification as evidence in the trial, and Mrs. Berheldt again identified Stovall in court.

Stovall was convicted, and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed. Stovall sought habeas corpus relief in district court on the grounds that Mrs. Berheldt’s identification was inadmissible. The district court dismissed after hearing argument on an unrelated issue. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.

In 1967, the Court issued rulings in United States v. Wade and Gilbert v. California that excluded identification evidence from trial when identification came from a tainted lineup — one at which the defendants did not have counsel present.


(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?

Media for Stovall v. Denno

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 16, 1967 in Stovall v. Denno

Earl Warren:

Number 254, Theodore Stovall, Petitioner, versus Wilfred Denno, Warden.

Mr. Polsky.

Leon B. Polsky:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

I would like briefly to go over the relevant facts as it relates to the questions before the Court in this case and the two proceedings cases highlighting those factual matters in which the three cases that you have on this general lineup question to some extent differ, it may involve different rules of law.

Essentially what happened here was that a homicide took place in the early morning of -- in a rural community -- urban community, New York State.

The next day, Stovall was taken into custody, went through a lengthy interrogation throughout the rest of the day and night and the following morning was arraigned upon a complaint charging a capital offense.

After that arraignment at which he was not offered -- assigned counsel, after that arraignment, he was then taken back to the police station where probably nothing much transpired and then to the hospital room where the wife of the victim was then under treatment.

In that hospital room, the wife of the victim who became the identifying witness at the trial was with three white police officers and two white assistant district attorneys.

Stovall, a Negro, was brought in handcuffs, handcuffed to other white officers into the room.

In the room he was asked, quote, to say these words, we do not know what those words were for voice identification.

By that these words were.

Leon B. Polsky:

Yes, well, he was told to say something --


Leon B. Polsky:

We don't know what it was.

The testimony of the witnesses at the trial were -- that he was told to say certain words and that was it.

We don't know what the --

What county in New York State was it?

Leon B. Polsky:

This was in Nassau County, in Hempstead I believe.

The wife of the victim identified Stovall at that time as --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

As what?

Leon B. Polsky:

As the man who killed her husband and who stabbed her.

Approximately a year later, when the case came to trial, the district attorney in his opening stated that Mrs. Behrendt would testify that two days after the crime she identified Stovall.

And the prosecutor then said he did not know whether Mrs. Behrendt would be able to identify the petitioner in court.

Mrs. Behrendt then later did in fact identify Stovall in court and she did in fact testify that she had previously identified the petitioner in her hospital room.

Now under New York law, this evidence of prior identification if she had only been able to say, "He is the man I identified a year ago", and if there were no other evidence in the case except for corpus delicti, that would be sufficient evidence of the defendant's guilt to sustain a motion to dismiss the indictment and to sustain a motion -- to sustain the prima facie case of the people.

In other words this prior identification alone is affirmative evidence both of guilt and to corroborate the in court identification which Mrs. Behrendt made at the trial.

Now, our claim --

Do you have to have that kind of corroboration (Inaudible), suppose Mrs. Behrendt had never seen this defendant, (Inaudible) in the court, identified him, is that enough?

Leon B. Polsky:

Oh, yes.