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decided: June 30, 1958.



Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker

Author: Burton

[ 357 U.S. Page 427]

 MR. JUSTICE BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

A jury in a Utah court found petitioner, Mrs. Ashdown, guilty of the first-degree murder of her husband and recommended a life sentence. The question before us is whether petitioner's oral confession was obtained in such a manner as to make its use in evidence a violation of the due process of law required by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This issue was thoroughly considered by the trial court which made findings in relation to it. The Supreme Court of Utah reviewed the record in detail and upheld the admission of the confession. 5 Utah 2d 59, 296 P. 2d 726. We granted certiorari. 353 U.S. 981. Our independent review of the record brings us to the same conclusion.

On July 5, 1955, Ray Ashdown, petitioner's husband, died suddenly in his home in Cedar City, Utah. Petitioner had summoned a doctor who arrived shortly before Ray Ashdown's death. The doctor testified that the deceased gave the appearance of having been poisoned and that he told the doctor just before he died that he had taken some bitter-tasting lemon juice about a half hour earlier. On being called, the sheriff made a thorough search of the Ashdown home but found no trace of any poison. An autopsy was performed, and the contents of the deceased's stomach was sent to the state chemist's office for analysis. The report, received by the sheriff on July 9, stated that the stomach of the deceased contained strychnine.

July 9 was the day of the funeral. Promptly after receipt of the chemist's report, the sheriff went to the cemetery, arriving just after the interment. Through petitioner's brother-in-law, the sheriff asked that petitioner come to the County and City Building. At about 4 p. m. she and her sister arrived at the sheriff's office.

[ 357 U.S. Page 428]

     The sheriff asked to talk with petitioner privately and she consented. They went across the hall to an empty courtroom where the sheriff, a deputy sheriff and the district attorney, all people known by the petitioner, talked with her for the next five and one-half hours.

The sheriff told petitioner the results of the autopsy and the chemist's report. Within the first half hour, the district attorney advised her that she did not have to answer any questions and that she was entitled to consult with an attorney. She made no request for an attorney at that time. She said she did not think she could add anything to help the investigation, but she mentioned her husband had been despondent on several occasions. The officers let her talk freely on family matters without interruption and such conversation consumed about half the time spent in the interview. The sheriff attempted to direct her attention to discovering whether her husband's death might have been due to an accident. To impress her with the importance of the distinction between murder and manslaughter, the district attorney read her some of the statutes relating to those crimes. In addition, he told her about an experience he had in the Army in Europe. He said he had been accused of killing five men but, by cooperating with investigating officials, he had been cleared of all blame for those deaths.

The officers reviewed in detail the events of July 5. Petitioner admitted giving her husband a cup of lemon juice about a half hour before his death. She said she had put salt in the juice and denied that she might have mistakenly used poison instead of salt. The sheriff asked whether the deceased drank all of the lemon juice offered him. Petitioner replied that he had not, and that she had thrown out the remainder and put the cup, unwashed, on top of the Frigidaire. In their search of the house, the officers found the cup, washed, standing on the drainboard.

[ 357 U.S. Page 429]

     When asked about it, petitioner said that, after she had gone for the second time to a neighbor's house to call the doctor (who arrived before she returned), she had washed the cup and placed it where the officers found it. Petitioner could not explain why she had walked past the doctor and her husband, who was at that moment in the last extremity, to wash a cup. Petitioner several times asked whether the officers wanted her to confess to something she had not done, and they repeatedly told her they did not.

Petitioner, at one point, stated that her husband had put the strychnine in the lemon juice. After a brief interrogation as to how he had done it, the sheriff told her he did not believe her husband had poisoned himself. Petitioner then confessed that she had put five or six grains of strychnine in the cup. She said she had planned to take it herself but later decided to give it to her husband. The sheriff testified that she was emotionally upset, crying and sobbing. The confession came about four and one-half hours after the questioning began. Petitioner hesitated to say where she had obtained the strychnine and suggested she should have an attorney. The sheriff did not respond to this request. He said merely ...

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