Webb v. Texas, 409 U.S. 95 (1972)

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In Webb, the Supreme Court held that a state trial judge violated a criminal defendant’s due process clause right to a fair trial by so thoroughly warning a defense witness about the dangers of perjury that the witness refused to testify. The Court thus effectively recognized that such gratuitous warnings could defeat a defendant’s right to present a defense.

Webb attempted to call a single witness, Mills, to testify in Webb’s defense during his burglary trial. The trial judge warned Mills, who was already serving a prison sentence, that he would face many additional years in prison if he committed perjury and that the judge would personally take the matter to the grand jury if he lied on the witness stand. After receiving these warnings, Mills, not surprisingly, declined to testify. Webb was then convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.

After his appeals were rejected by the Texas state courts, Webb appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which summarily reversed his conviction by a vote of seven to two. In reversing the conviction, the Court cited Washington v. Texas (1967) for the proposition that the due process clause guarantees a defendant the right to present witnesses in his favor. The Court concluded that the judge’s threatening remarks effectively deprived Webb of that right by driving his only witness off the stand. Webb thus establishes that a judge (or a prosecutor) may not use the threat of a perjury prosecution to intimidate a defense witness from testifying.


References and Further Reading

  • Green, Bruce, Limits on a Prosecutor’s Communications with Prospective Defense Witnesses, Criminal Law Bulletin 25 (1989): 139.

Cases and Statutes Cited

Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14 (1967)

See also Due Process; Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14 (1967)