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PARKER v. NORTH CAROLINA

decided: May 4, 1970.

PARKER
v.
NORTH CAROLINA



CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF NORTH CAROLINA.

Burger, Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall

Author: White

[ 397 U.S. Page 791]

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

At about 11 p. m. on July 16, 1964, petitioner was arrested after entering the yard of a home where a burglary and rape had been committed four days earlier. Petitioner, a Negro boy then 15 years old, was taken to the police station and was questioned for one or two hours. After the questioning, petitioner was placed alone in a dimly lit cell for the remainder of the night. Although petitioner refused to give even his name during the questioning, the police eventually determined his identity and notified petitioner's mother the next day between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. That morning, petitioner was given drinking water and was then questioned by the police; petitioner almost immediately confessed to the burglary and rape committed several days earlier at the house where he had been arrested. Shortly thereafter,

[ 397 U.S. Page 792]

     an attorney retained by petitioner's mother came to the police station and talked with petitioner. Petitioner told the attorney that the confession had not been prompted by threats or promises and that he had not been frightened when he made the statement to the police.

Petitioner was indicted for first-degree burglary, an offense punishable by death under North Carolina law.*fn1 Petitioner's retained attorney discussed with petitioner and his mother the nature and seriousness of the charge. In due course, petitioner and his mother signed written statements authorizing the entry of a plea of guilty. Both petitioner and his mother were aware at the time they signed the authorization for the guilty plea that, if the plea was accepted, petitioner would receive the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.*fn2 The prosecutor

[ 397 U.S. Page 793]

     and the trial judge accepted the plea. In accepting the plea on August 18, 1964, the trial court asked the petitioner if the plea was made in response to any promise or threat and petitioner answered in the negative; petitioner affirmed that he tendered the plea "freely without any fear or compulsion."*fn3 Upon acceptance of the plea, petitioner was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1967, petitioner, assisted by counsel, filed a petition under the North Carolina Post-Conviction Hearing Act*fn4 to obtain relief from his conviction. In his petition, Parker urged that his plea of guilty was the product of a coerced confession and that the indictment to which

[ 397 U.S. Page 794]

     he pleaded was invalid because members of his race had been systematically excluded from the grand jury which returned the indictment. After a hearing, the Superior Court of Halifax County found that there was no deliberate exclusion of Negroes from the grand jury that indicted petitioner and that petitioner had freely admitted his guilt and had pleaded guilty "freely, voluntarily, without threat, coercion or duress . . . ." The Court of Appeals of North Carolina, the highest state court in which petitioner could seek review,*fn5 affirmed the conviction after reviewing not only the claims presented to the lower court but also the additional assertion by petitioner that his guilty plea was involuntary because North Carolina statutes at that time allowed a defendant to escape the possibility of a death penalty on a capital charge by pleading guilty to that charge. 2 N. C. App. 27, 162 S. E. 2d 526 (1968). We granted certiorari, 395 U.S. 974 (1969), to consider petitioner's federal constitutional claims. For the reasons presented below, we affirm.

I

Parker would have us hold his guilty plea involuntary and therefore invalid for two reasons: first, because it was induced by a North Carolina statute providing a maximum penalty in the event of a plea of guilty lower than the penalty authorized after a verdict of guilty by a jury; and, second, because the plea was the product of a coerced confession given to the police shortly after petitioner was arrested. Neither reason is sufficient to warrant setting aside Parker's plea.

It may be that under United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968), it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty under the statutory framework which existed

[ 397 U.S. Page 795]

     in North Carolina at the time of Parker's plea.*fn6 Even so, we determined in Brady v. United States, ante, p. 742, that an otherwise valid plea is not involuntary because induced by the defendant's desire to limit the possible maximum penalty to less than that authorized if there is a jury trial. In this respect we see nothing to distinguish Parker's case from Brady's.

Nor can we accept the claim that the plea was infirm because it was the product of a coerced confession. According to Parker's testimony at the post-conviction hearing, he was denied food and water, promised unspecified help if he confessed, and denied counsel's advice when he requested it. In the record, however, was an abundance of evidence contradicting Parker's claim of coercion: Parker's statements to his attorney soon after his interrogation that there had been no threats or promises and that he had not been afraid, his similar declarations in his sworn statement authorizing his plea,*fn7 his answers to the trial judge at the time the plea was accepted,*fn8 and his failure to complain of any mistreatment by the police until many months after he began serving his sentence. The North Carolina courts accordingly refused to credit his testimony and concluded that his confession was a free and voluntary act.

[ 397 U.S. Page 796]

     We would in any event be reluctant to question the judgment of the state courts in this respect; but we need not evaluate the voluntariness of petitioner's confession since even if the confession should have been found involuntary, we cannot believe that the alleged conduct of the police during the interrogation period was of such a nature or had such enduring effect as to make involuntary a plea of guilty entered over a month later. Parker soon had food and water, the lack of counsel was immediately remedied, and there was ample opportunity to consider the significance of the alleged promises. After the allegedly coercive interrogation, there were no threats, misrepresentations, promises, or other improper acts by the State. Parker had the advice of retained counsel and of his family for the month before he pleaded. The connection, if any, between Parker's confession and his plea of guilty had "become so attenuated as to dissipate the taint." Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 341 (1939); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 491 (1963). As far as this record reveals, the guilty plea was Parker's free and voluntary act, the product of his own choice, just as he affirmed it was when the plea was entered in open court.

II

On the assumption that Parker's confession was inadmissible, there remains the question whether his plea, even if voluntary, was unintelligently made because his counsel mistakenly thought his confession was admissible. As we understand it, Parker's position necessarily implies that his decision to plead rested on the strength of the case against him: absent the confession, his chances of acquittal were good and he would have chosen to stand trial; but given the confession, the evidence was too strong and it was to his advantage to plead guilty and

[ 397 U.S. Page 797]

     limit the possible penalty to life imprisonment.*fn9 On this assumption, had Parker and his counsel thought the confession inadmissible, there would have been a plea of not guilty and a trial to a jury. But counsel apparently deemed the confession admissible and his advice to plead guilty was followed by his client. Parker now considers his confession involuntary and inadmissible. The import of this claim is that he suffered from bad advice and that had he been correctly counseled he would have gone to trial rather than enter a guilty plea. He suggests that he is entitled to plead again, a suggestion that we reject.

For the reasons set out in McMann v. Richardson, ante, p. 759, even if Parker's counsel was wrong in his assessment of Parker's confession, it does not follow that his error was sufficient to render the plea unintelligent and entitle Parker to disavow his admission in open court that he committed the offense with which he was charged.*fn10 Based on the facts of record relating to Parker's confession and guilty plea, which we have previously detailed, we think the advice he received was well within the range of competence required of attorneys

[ 397 U.S. Page 798]

     representing defendants in criminal cases. Parker's plea of guilty was an intelligent plea not open to attack on the grounds that counsel ...


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