Napue v. Illinois And SCOTUS “Fact Finding”

I love this case, in some ways.

When prosecuting Napue for the long ago murder of a cop, the prosecuting attorney introduces a cooperating co-defendant witness named Hamer, who gives the whole supposed story.  Hamer is then cross examined about whether he’s been promised a deal by the government in exchange for his testimony and denies it.  The prosecuting attorney on redirect makes quite a show of the emphatic denials that there is any agreement between him or his office and Hamer for Hamer’s testimony.

Napue is convicted and sent to prison for 199 years.  Hamer is returned to prison as well, to serve out his sentence.

Years later this same prosecuting attorney has gone into private practice, something that happened back in the 1940’s and 50’s but never happens now.  But that’s another subject.

In any case, what does the former prosecutor do?  He files…

“…a petition in the nature of a writ of error coram nobis on behalf of Hamer. In the petition he alleged that as prosecuting attorney he had promised Hamer that if he would testify against Napue, “a recommendation for a reduction of his [Hamer’s] sentence would be made and, if possible, effectuated.”  The attorney prayed that the court would effect “consummation of the compact entered into between the duly authorized representatives of the State of Illinois and George Hamer.”

What a fucking moron.  Napue gets wind of the coram nobis petition and makes a big fuss:

A hearing was ultimately held at which the former Assistant State’s Attorney testified that he had only promised to help Hamer if Hamer’s story “about being a reluctant participant” in the robbery was borne out, and not merely if Hamer would testify at petitioner’s trial. He testified that in his coram nobis petition on Hamer’s behalf he “probably used some language that [he] should not have used” in his “zeal to do something for Hamer” to whom he “felt a moral obligation.” The lower court denied petitioner relief on the basis of the attorney’s testimony.

Yes, the Illinois state trial court denied relief to Napue, and indeed found as a fact that no promise of consideration had been given by the prosecutor to Hamer, despite the prosecutor’s own explicitly and obviously contrary statements in his coram nobis petition.

In those days, however, at least some state judges would not countenance a   “fact finding” as embarrassing as the one made by the Illinois trial court, so the Illinois Supreme Court found the fact to be otherwise:  that the prosecutor had in fact promised consideration in return for Hamer’s testimony.

They still denied Napue relief, though.  Over two dissents.

The Warren SCOTUS disagreed with the outcome, though, which is why Napue is a significant case and the last in the Mooney line [Mooney v. Holohan, 294 US 103 (1935)] dealing with the government’s knowing use of perjury “to obtain a conviction”.

But a little more goes on in this opinion, and it has to do with appellate courts signing off on embarrassingly incorrect fact findings by other courts, which unfortunately happen with some regularity when such fact findings favor the government and its police and prosectutors:

Third, the State argues that we are not free to reach a factual conclusion different from that reached by the Illinois Supreme Court, and that we are bound by its determination that the false testimony could not in any reasonable likelihood have affected the judgment of the jury. The State relies on Hysler v. Florida, 315 U.S. 411 . But in that case the Court held only that a state standard of specificity and substantiality in making allegations of federal constitutional deprivations would be respected, and this Court made its own “independent examination” of the allegations there to determine if they had in fact met the Florida standard. The duty of this Court to make its own independent examination of the record when federal constitutional deprivations are alleged is clear, resting, as it does, on our solemn responsibility for maintaining the Constitution inviolate. Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 1 Wheat. 304; Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 . [360 U.S. 264, 272]   This principle was well stated in Niemotko v. Maryland, 340 U.S. 268, 271 :

      “In cases in which there is a claim of denial of rights under the Federal Constitution, this Court is not bound by the conclusions of lower courts, but will reexamine the evidentiary basis on which those conclusions are founded.”

It is now so well settled that the Court was able to speak in Kern-Limerick, Inc., v. Scurlock, 347 U.S. 110, 121 , of the “long course of judicial construction which establishes as a principle that the duty rests on this Court to decide for itself facts or constructions upon which federal constitutional issues rest.” 4 As previously indicated, our own evaluation of the record here compels us to hold that the false testimony used by the State in securing the conviction of petitioner may have had an effect on the outcome of the trial. Accordingly, the judgment below must be


See, ordinarily appellate courts in general and especially the SCOTUS don’t make “findings of fact”; that is, they don’t take testimony or other evidence.  Indeed, they will only re-evaluate facts found in a process like that by lower courts in very limited circumstances.

But once in a while a fact sticks out like a sore thumb in the record and begs to be acknowledged for what it is, and if the SCOTUS is the only court that is willing to do that then they do.  Or at least, they can if they want to.

That’s what Napue v. Illinois means.

The coram nobis petition filed by the idiot former prosecutor – who is never named, interestingly – in Napue foreclosed further discussion or debate on whether he had made a deal with Hamer.  He did.  Any moron could see that given the coram nobis petition he himself had filed.  Too bad the case had to go all the way to the SCOTUS before some judge would acknowledge the obvious and do something about it.

The Ashley Baker statement in the Sephora Davis case = the coram nobis petition in Napue v. Illinois.

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Filed under financial crisis, wrongful convictions

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