Rideau v. Louisiana/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

373 U.S. 723

Rideau  v.  Louisiana

 Argued: April 29, 1963. --- Decided: June 3, 1963

On the evening of February 16, 1961, a man robbed a bank in Lake Charles, Louisiana, kidnapped three of the bank's employees, and killed one of them A few hours later the petitioner, Wilbert Rideau, was apprehended by the police and lodged in the Calcasieu Parish jail in Lake Charles. The next morning a moving picture film with a sound track was made of an 'interview' in the jail between Rideau and the Sheriff of Calcasieu Parish. This 'interview' lasted approximately 20 minutes. It consisted of interrogation by the sheriff and admissions by Rideau that he had perpetrated the bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Later the same day the filmed 'interview' was broadcast over a television station in Lake Charles, and some 24,000 people in the community saw and heard it on television. The sound film was again shown on television the next day to an estimated audience of 53,000 people. The following day the film was again broadcast by the same television station, and this time approximately 20,000 people saw and heard the 'interview' on their television sets. Calcasieu Parish has a population of approximately 150,000 people.

Some two weeks later, Rideau was arraigned on charges of armed robbery, kidnapping, and murder, and two lawyers were appointed to represent him. His lawyers promptly filed a motion for a change of venue, on the ground that it would deprive Rideau of rights guaranteed to him by the United States Constitution to force him to trial in Calcasieu Parish after the three television broadcasts there of his 'interview' with the sheriff. [1] After a hearing, the motion for change of venue was denied, and Rideau was accordingly convicted and sentenced to death on the murder charge in the Calcasieu Parish trial court.

Three members of the jury which convicted him had stated on voir dire that they had seen and heard Rideau's televised 'interview' with the sheriff on at least one occasion. Two members of the jury were deputy sheriffs of Calcasieu Parish. Rideau's counsel had requested that these jurors be excused for cause, having exhausted all of their peremptory challenges, but these challenges for cause had been denied by the trial judge. The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Louisiana, 242 La. 431, 137 So.2d 283, and the case is here on a writ of certiorari, 371 U.S. 919, 83 S.Ct. 294, 9 L.Ed.2d 229.

The record in this case contains as an exhibit the sound film which was broadcast. What the people of Calcasieu Parish saw on their television sets was Rideau, in jail, flanked by the sheriff and two state troopers, admitting in detail the commission of the robbery, kidnapping, and murder, in response to leading questions by the sheriff. [2] The record fails to show whose idea it was to make the sound film, and broadcast it over the local television station, but we know from the conceded circumstances that the plan was carried out with the active cooperation and participation of the local law enforcement officers. And certainly no one has suggested that it was Rideau's idea, or even that he was aware of what was going on when the sound film was being made.

In the view we take of this case, the question of who originally initiated the idea of the televised interview is, in any event, a basically irrelevant detail. For we hold that it was a denial of due process of law to refuse the request for a change of venue, after the people of Calcasieu Parish had been exposed repeatedly and in depth to the spectacle of Rideau personally confessing in detail to the crimes with which he was later to be charged. For anyone who has ever watched television the conclusion cannot be avoided that this spectacle, to the tens of thousands of people who saw and heard it, in a very real sense was Rideau's trial-at which he pleaded guilty to murder. Any subsequent court proceedings in a community so pervasively exposed to such a spectacle could be but a hollow formality.

In Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461, 80 L.Ed. 682, this Court set aside murder convictions secured in a state trial with all the formalities of fair procedures, based upon 'free and voluntary confessions' which in fact had been preceded by grossly brutal kangaroo court proceedings while the defendants were held in jail without counsel. As Chief Justice Hughes wrote in that case, 'The state is free to regulate the procedure of its courts in accordance with its own conceptions of policy * * *. (But) it does not follow that it may substitute trial by ordeal.' 297 U.S., at 285, 56 S.Ct., at 464. Cf. White v. Texas, 310 U.S. 530, 60 S.Ct. 1032, 84 L.Ed. 1342. That was almost a generation ago, in an era before the onrush of an electronic age.

The case now before us does not involve physical brutality. The kangaroo court proceedings in this case involved a more subtle but no less real deprivation of due process of law. Under our Constitution's guarantee of due process, a person accused of committing a crime is vouchsafed basic minimal rights. Among these are the right to counsel, [3] the right to plead not guilty, and the right to be tried in a courtroom presided over by a judge. Yet in this case the people of Calcasieu Parish saw and heard, not once but three times, a 'trial' of Rideau in a jail, presided over by a sheriff, where there was no lawyer to advise Rideau of his right to stand mute.

The record shows that such a thing as this never took place before in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. [4] Whether it has occurred elsewhere, we do not know. But we do not hesitate to hold, without pausing to examine a particularized transcript of the voir dire examination of the members of the jury, that due process of law in this case required a trial before a jury drawn from a community of people who had not seen and heard Rideau's televised 'interview.' 'Due process of law, preserved for all by our Constitution, commands that no such practice as that disclosed by this record shall send any accused to his death.' Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 241, 60 S.Ct. 472, 479, 84 L.Ed. 716.


Mr. Justice CLARK, with whom Mr. Justice HARLAN joins, dissenting.


^1  The motion stated: 'That to require the Defendant to be tried on the charges which have been preferred against him in the Parish of Calcasieu, would be a travesty of justice as would be a violation to the Defendant's rights for a fair and impartial trial, which is guaranteed to every person accused of having committed a crime by the Constitution of the State of Louisiana and by the Constitution of the United States.'

^2  The Supreme Court of Louisiana summarized the event as follows: '(O)n the morning of February 17, 1961, the defendant was interviewed by the sheriff, and the entire interview was filmed (with a sound track) and shown to the audience of television station KPLC-TV on three occasions. The showings occurred prior to the arraignment of defendant on the murder charge. In this interview the accused admitted his part in the crime for which he was later ndicted.' 242 La., at 447, 137 So.2d, at 289.

^3  Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799.

^4  'Q. Mr. Mazilly, you have been in police work roughly 21 years?

'A. Yes, sir.

'Q. Were you in court yesterday at the time a sound on film picture was shown to the court which had been shown on KPLC-TV encompassing an interview between Sheriff Reid and Rideau?

'A. I was.

'Q. In all of your 21 years, do you know of any similar case in this parish or Southwest Louisiana where a man charged with a capital crime was allowed-that pictures were made of him and the general public was shown the pictures and a sound track in which he confessed to a capital crime?

'A. No, sir.'

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).