Watkins v. Sowders

PETITIONER:John Gregory Watkins
RESPONDENT:Dewey Sowders
LOCATION:Western District Court of Kentucky

DOCKET NO.: 79-5949
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 449 US 341 (1981)
ARGUED: Nov 10, 1980
DECIDED: Jan 13, 1981
GRANTED: Mar 17, 1980

ADVOCATES:
Frank W. Heft, Jr. – on behalf of the Petitioners
Victor Fox – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

John Watkins was charged with attempting armed robbery of a liquor store in Louisville, Kentucky. He was arrested based on the identification of two witnesses. One of those witnesses identified Watkins as the gunman two days later in a lineup, and later that same day, the police took Watkins to the other witness’s hospital bed where he identified Watkins as the shooter. At the trial, both witnesses identified Watkins as the shooter. Watkins, along with two other witnesses, testified he was at a pool hall at the time of the shooting. Watkins was convicted, and on appeal he argued that the trial court had a constitutional obligation to conduct a hearing outside the presence of the jury to determine whether the identification evidence was admissible, but the Supreme Court of Kentucky rejected the argument. Watkins then sought a writ of habeas corpus. The district court denied the writ and held that a failure to hold a pretrial hearing does not require the reversal of a conviction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Question

Is a state criminal trial court constitutionally compelled to conduct a hearing outside the presence of the jury whenever a defendant contends that a witness’ identification was improper? 

Media for Watkins v. Sowders

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 10, 1980 in Watkins v. Sowders

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 13, 1981 in Watkins v. Sowders

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in Watkins against Sowders and Summitt against Sowders will be announced by Justice Stewart.

Potter Stewart:

These cases are here by a reason of the grant of writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

These cases were consolidated for argument and decision in the Court of Appeals as well as in this Court.

They present the question whether a state criminal trial court is constitutionally compelled to conduct a hearing outside the presence of the jury whenever a defendant contends that a witness’ identification of him was arrived at improperly.

For the reasons elaborated in the opinion of the Court filed today, we hold that the constitution does not require a per se rule compelling such a procedure in every case and accordingly the judgments of the Court of Appeals are affirmed.

Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion in which he has been joined by Justice Marshall.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Stewart.