Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387 (1977)

On Christmas Eve 1968, a ten-year-old child was abducted by Williams, a recent escapee from a mental hospital. A day later, police in Davenport, Iowa, found Williams’s car and located at a rest stop some of the child’s clothes and the blanket in which she had been wrapped. Police initiated a search of the surrounding countryside.

Williams turned himself in on December 26 to the Davenport police. When he was formally charged, he obtained attorneys in Davenport and Des Moines who instructed the police not to question Williams during his transport to Des Moines, 160 miles away. A detective and another officer were assigned to drive Williams to Des Moines. During the car ride, the detective ‘‘delivered what [was] referred to in the briefs and oral arguments as the ‘‘Christian burial speech.’’

I want to give you something to think about . . . . I want you to observe the weather conditions . . . . They are predicting several inches of snow for tonight, and I feel that you yourself are the only person that knows where this little girl’s body is . . . . [T]he parents of this little girl should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas (E)ve and murdered. And I feel we should stop and locate it on the way in rather than waiting until morning and trying to come back out after a snow storm and possibly not being able to find it at all.

After listening to these comments, Williams directed the police to the child’s body.

During his trial, over the objections of the defense, the judge allowed the prosecution to admit Williams’s highly incriminating statements to the police as to the location of the body. The jury found Williams guilty of first-degree murder.

In a five-to-four decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Williams was denied his right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The majority said that the detective’s speech constituted an interrogation outside the presence of counsel after judicial proceedings had been initiated. This conclusion was based on the admission that the detective was trying to elicit information from Williams in the car before he could re-contact his attorney in Des Moines.

The Court rejected the view that Williams had waived his Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer voluntarily during the car ride. The justices found that the prosecution had failed to meet its burden to prove that Williams affirmatively relinquished his right to counsel through a knowing and intelligent waiver. Thus, the police violated the right to counsel by eliciting incriminating statements from Williams without his counsel present.

The Court remanded the case to the Iowa courts and directed that Williams’s incriminating statements and any testimony regarding the retrieval of the body be excluded from evidence at a new trial. However, the Court left open the possibility that the body, as well as its condition, could be admitted into evidence unrelated to his statement. This, in fact, occurred in the second trial where the defendant was again convicted. The Court affirmed this conviction using the so-called inevitable discovery doctrine, meaning that the confession did not affect the other evidence, as it would have been found anyway, inevitably.

PAUL MARCUS

References and Further Reading

  • Kamisar, Yale, Brewer v. Williams—A Hard Look at a Discomfiting Record, Georgetown Law Journal 66 (1977): 209. 
  • White, Welsh S., False Confessions and the Constitution: Safeguards Against Untrustworthy Confessions, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 32 (1997): 105. 

See also Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984); Right to Counsel; Self-Incrimination: Miranda and Evolution

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