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U.S. Supreme Court
BRADY v. MARYLAND, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)

The question remains whether petitioner was denied a constitutional right when the Court of Appeals restricted his new trial to the question of punishment. In justification of that ruling the Court of Appeals stated:

"There is considerable doubt as to how much good Boblit's undisclosed confession would have done Brady if it had been before the jury. It clearly implicated Brady as being the one who wanted to strangle the victim, Brooks. Boblit, according to this statement, also favored killing him, but he wanted to do it by shooting. We cannot put ourselves in the place of the jury and assume what their views would have been as to whether it did or did not matter whether it was Brady's hands or Boblit's hands that twisted the shirt about the victim's neck. . . . [I]t would be `too dogmatic' for us to say that the jury would not have attached any significance to this evidence in considering the punishment of the defendant Brady.

"Not without some doubt, we conclude that the withholding of this particular confession of Boblit's was prejudicial to the defendant Brady. . . .

"The appellant's sole claim of prejudice goes to the punishment imposed. If Boblit's withheld confession had been before the jury, nothing in it could have reduced the appellant Brady's offense below murder in the first degree. We, therefore, see no occasion to retry that issue." 226 Md., at 429-430, 174 A. 2d, at 171. [373 U.S. 83, 89]

If this were a jurisdiction where the jury was not the judge of the law, a different question would be presented. But since it is, how can the Maryland Court of Appeals state that nothing in the suppressed confession could have reduced petitioner's offense "below murder in the first degree"? If, as a matter of Maryland law, juries in criminal cases could determine the admissibility of such evidence on the issue of innocence or guilt, the question would seem to be foreclosed.

But Maryland's constitutional provision making the jury in criminal cases "the Judges of Law" does not mean precisely what it seems to say. 3 The present status of that provision was reviewed recently in Giles v. State, 229 Md. 370, 183 A. 2d 359, appeal dismissed, 372 U.S. 767 , where the several exceptions, added by statute or carved out by judicial construction, are reviewed. One of those exceptions, material here, is that "Trial courts have always passed and still pass upon the admissibility of evidence the jury may consider on the issue of the innocence or guilt of the accused." 229 Md., at 383, 183 A. 2d, at 365. The cases cited make up a long line going back nearly a century. Wheeler v. State, 42 Md. 563, 570, stated that instructions to the jury were advisory only, "except in regard to questions as to what shall be considered as evidence." And the court "having such right, it follows of course, that it also has the right to prevent counsel from arguing against such an instruction." Bell v. State, 57 Md. 108, 120. And see Beard v. State, 71 Md. 275, 280, 17 A. 1044, 1045; Dick v. State, 107 Md. 11, 21, 68 A. 286, 290. Cf. Vogel v. State, 163 Md. 267, 162 A. 705. [373 U.S. 83, 90]

We usually walk on treacherous ground when we explore state law,[fn4] for state courts, state agencies, and state legislatures are its final expositors under our federal regime. But, as we read the Maryland decisions, it is the court, not the jury, that passes on the "admissibility of evidence" pertinent to "the issue of the innocence or guilt of the accused." Giles v. State, supra. In the present case a unanimous Court of Appeals has said that nothing in the suppressed confession "could have reduced the appellant Brady's offense below murder in the first degree." We read that statement as a ruling on the admissibility of the confession on the issue of innocence or guilt. A sporting theory of justice might assume that if the suppressed confession had been used at the first trial, the judge's ruling that it was not admissible on the issue of innocence or guilt might have been flouted by the jury just as might have been done if the court had first admitted a confession and then stricken it from the record.[fn5] But we cannot raise that trial strategy to the dignity of a constitutional right and say that the deprival of this defendant of that sporting chance through the use of a [373 U.S. 83, 91] bifurcated trial (cf. Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241) denies him due process or violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Affirmed.

Footnotes:

  1. Neither party suggests that the decision below is not a "final judgment" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. 1257 (3), and no attack on the reviewability of the lower court's judgment could be successfully maintained. For the general rule that "Final judgment in a criminal case means sentence. The sentence is the judgment" (Berman v. United States, 302 U.S. 211, 212 ) cannot be applied here. If in fact the Fourteenth Amendment entitles petitioner to a new trial on the issue of guilt as well as punishment the ruling below has seriously prejudiced him. It is the right to a trial on the issue of guilt "that presents a serious and unsettled question" (Cohen v. Beneficial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 547 ) that "is fundamental to the further conduct of the case" (United States v. General Motors Corp., 323 U.S. 373, 377 ). This question is "independent of, and unaffected by" (Radio Station WOW v. Johnson, 326 U.S. 120, 126 ) what may transpire in a trial at which petitioner can receive only a life imprisonment or death sentence. It cannot be mooted by such a proceeding. See Largent v. Texas, 318 U.S. 418, 421 -422. Cf. Local No. 438 v. Curry, 371 U.S. 542, 549.
  2. Judge Simon E. Sobeloff when Solicitor General put the idea as follows in an address before the Judicial Conference of the Fourth Circuit on June 29, 1954: "The Solicitor General is not a neutral, he is an advocate; but an advocate for a client whose business is not merely to prevail in the instant case. My client's chief business is not to achieve victory but to establish justice. We are constantly reminded of the now classic words penned by one of my illustrious predecessors, Frederick William Lehmann, that the Government wins its point when justice is done in its courts."
  3. See Dennis, Maryland's Antique Constitutional Thorn, 92 U. of Pa. L. Rev. 34, 39, 43; Prescott, Juries as Judges of the Law: Should the Practice be Continued, 60 Md. St. Bar Assn. Rept. 246, 253-254.
  4. For one unhappy incident of recent vintage see Oklahoma Packing Co. v. Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., 309 U.S. 4 , that replaced an earlier opinion in the same case, 309 U.S. 703.
  5. "In the matter of confessions a hybrid situation exists. It is the duty of the Court to determine from the proof, usually taken out of the presence of the jury, if they were freely and voluntarily made, etc., and admissible. If admitted, the jury is entitled to hear and consider proof of the circumstances surrounding their obtention, the better to determine their weight and sufficiency. The fact that the Court admits them clothes them with no presumption for the jury's purposes that they are either true or were freely and voluntarily made. However, after a confession has been admitted and read to the jury the judge may change his mind and strike it out of the record. Does he strike it out of the jury's mind?" Dennis, Maryland's Antique Constitutional Thorn, 92 U. of Pa. L. Rev. 34, 39. See also Bell v. State, supra, at 120; Vogel v. State, 163 Md., at 272, 162 A., at 706-707.