Brown v. Mississippi, 279 U.S. 278 (1936)

In Brown v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court for the first time relied upon the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to exclude a confession from evidence in a state court. Brown was a seminal case, because the due process doctrine then dominated the Supreme Court’s confessions law jurisprudence until Miranda v. Arizona was decided in 1966. Even after Miranda, courts continue to exclude confessions extracted in violation of due process on the authority of Brown.

The facts of the case are appalling. Brown highlighted the fact that police officers in the South systematically abused black suspects in the criminal justice system during that era. A deputy sheriff, accompanied by other white men, hung defendant Ellington by a rope to a tree limb, let him down, hung him up again, and finally tied him to a tree and whipped him as the defendant protested his innocence. ‘‘[T]he signs of the rope on his neck were plainly visible during the so-called trial.’’ After the mob released Ellington, he went home, ‘‘suffering intense pain and agony.’’ A day or two later, the same deputy arrested Ellington and headed to a jail in an adjoining county, taking a route that went into Alabama. While in Alabama, the deputy stopped and again severely whipped Ellington, making clear that he would continue the beating until Ellington confessed. Ellington then confessed to a statement dictated by the deputy, and the deputy then took him to jail.

Two other defendants (including the named defendant Brown) were also arrested. At the same jail where Ellington was held, the deputy who had beaten Ellington was once again accompanied by a ‘‘number of white men,’’ including an officer, and the jailer. This group forced the two defendants to strip, laid the men over chairs, and ‘‘cut to pieces’’ their backs with a leather strap with buckles. The deputy made clear that the beatings would continue until defendants confessed ‘‘in every matter of detail as demanded by those present.’’ The defendants confessed, and the beating continued until the confessions conformed to the torturers’ demands.

The state’s only evidence against the defendants was their confessions, the circumstances of which were not disputed. Indeed, in admitting to the whipping of Ellington, the deputy stated that the severity of the beating was ‘‘‘[n]ot too much for a negro; not as much as I would have done if it were left to me.’’’

The Court had little trouble finding that the defendants’ convictions in these circumstances violated due process. Although noting that the states have great latitude in establishing court procedures, their freedom ‘‘is the freedom of constitutional government and is limited by the requirement of due process of law.’’ The states may not resort to torture to obtain convictions. The wrong committed in the case was ‘‘so fundamental that it made the whole proceeding a mere pretense of a trial and rendered the conviction and sentence wholly void.’’ The Court’s decision was unanimous. Professor Morgan Cloud has described Brown as ‘‘one of the Court’s great opinions.’’

M. K. B. DARMER

References and Further Reading

  • Cloud, Morgan, Torture and Truth, Texas Law Review 74 (1996): 1211. 
  • Darmer, M.K.B., Beyond Bin Laden and Lindh: Confessions Law in an Age of Terrorism, Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 12 (2003): 319–64. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)

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