United States v. Price

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Cecil Ray Price
LOCATION: Neshoba County Jail

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1965-1967)

CITATION: 383 US 787 (1966)
ARGUED: Nov 09, 1965
DECIDED: Mar 28, 1966

Thurgood Marshall - For the Petitioner
H. C. Mike Watkins - For the Respondent

Facts of the case

On June 21, 1964 Cecil Ray Price, a sheriff’s deputy, detained three civil rights workers, Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, in the Neshoba County Jail, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That night, Price released all three men from custody, and then drove his police cruiser to intercept them on Mississippi Highway 19. Price accosted the three men, placed them in his police car, and then drove them down an unpaved road. There Price and seventeen other men, including both local citizens and members of the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department, executed the three men and dumped their bodies in a construction site. All eighteen defendants were subsequently arrested and were indicted by a Grand Jury on January 15, 1965 for violating federal statutes. The first statute, 18 U.S.C.S. 241, dealt with criminal conspiracies. The second statute, 18 U.S.C.S. 242, criminalized anyone acting under the color of law from depriving any of the rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed by the Constitution. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the charges for violating 18 U.S.C.S. 242 against the non-police officer defendants, claiming that the indictment did not state an actual offense against the United States. This appeal followed. 


Did Price and the other defendants violate federal law when they murdered three men on June 21, 1964?

Media for United States v. Price

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 09, 1965 in United States v. Price

Earl Warren:

Number 60, United States, Appellant versus Cecil Ray Price et al.

Mr. Solicitor General.

Thurgood Marshall:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

These cases, as all the world knows, arise out of a brutal incident during the summer of last year in the town of Philadelphia in the County of Neshoba in the State of Mississippi which culminated in the murder of three young civil rights workers; Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

These federal prosecutions are brought under Sections 241 and 242 of the Criminal Code in which some 18 persons -- three of them public officials, are accused of having joined together to deprive the three young victims of their civil rights.

The actual facts cannot be detailed because no trial has taken place and the evidence has not been deduced.

All of that's before the Court today is a bad charge consisting of two indictments.

The only question here is whether those indictments, assuming the facts alleged can be proved, state offenses against the United States.

The overall charge is that the 18 defendants conceived and executed a criminal plan directed against the three victims.

It is alleged that the three of the defendants, namely the sheriff of Neshoba County, his deputy, and a local policeman used their official powers to release the victims who were in state custody, turned them over to a lynch mob, which one of the officers had shielded by his presence with the view that they'd be summarily punished without benefit of trial and has alleged in defiance of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The indictment in number 59 is only one charge, charges a conspiracy that was in charged to be in violation of Section 241, the whole of that indictment was dismissed as to all defendants.

The first count of indictment in number 60 is the same conspiracy as charged as a violation of the general conspiracy statute, Section 371 of the Criminal Code, as a conspiracy to commit the offense defined in Section 242.

That charge was sustained by the District Court as to all defendants.

The three other counts of indictment -- the indictment in number 60 charged all the defendants with substantive violations of Section 242 by executing the criminal plan with respect to each of the three victims.

And the District Court sustained those counts as to the three state officials, the three state law enforcement officers but dismissed on all three counts as to all other defendants because --

Were the individuals -- the private individuals and the substantive counts charged as “aiders and abettors”?

Thurgood Marshall:

Not specifically so except in one portion, the “aider and abettor” statute, we take the position, is they're whether or not 242 -- 242, each one says 242, in violation of Section 242.


Thurgood Marshall:

Yes sir, it's our position because when -- as we see it, when state officers are involved, and then the conspiracy moves in charging the state officers and the individuals together, but it would not apply of course unless the state officers were there.

And in this case, the state officers are there.

I think I can clear it up a little later on that.

The Government, on both indictments, is the allegation of a conspiracy to willfully subject the victims to the deprivation of “their right, privileges, and immunities secured and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, not be summarily punished without due process of law by persons under color of the State of Mississippi”.

That's in the indictment -- that particular section is quoted from page 12 and 13.

And before going any further, I want to explain the relationship between this case and more particularly number 59 in the Guest case to be argued next.

This case is really the preamble to the Guest case.

There is no Guest case unless we prevail in this case on the main point which is, that Section 241 protects Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The two cases are thus very closely related, yet I would like to stress the differences.

The basic factual difference of course is that here, the state itself through its law enforcement officers and their confederates, charged with invading the civil rights of citizens, while in the Guest case, the interference is directly attributable solely to private individuals.

Here, there is no question that violation to the Fourteenth Amendment alleged, there's no question about it as I see it.

And indeed, the District Judge so found by sustaining the charge of conspiring to violate 242 which he held as to all of them.