Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.


decided: December 11, 1933.



Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Sutherland

[ 290 U.S. Page 373]

 MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

The sole inquiry to be made in this case is whether in a federal court the wife of the defendant on trial for a criminal offense is a competent witness in his behalf. Her competency to testify against him is not involved.

The petitioner was twice tried and convicted in a federal district court upon an indictment for conspiracy to violate the prohibition law. His conviction on the first trial was reversed by the circuit court of appeals upon a ground not material here. 46 F.2d 417. Upon the second trial, as upon the first, defendant called his wife to testify in his behalf. At both trials she was excluded upon the ground of incompetency. The circuit court of appeals sustained this ruling upon the first appeal, and also upon the appeal which followed the second trial. 66 F.2d 70. We granted certiorari, limited to the question as to what law is applicable to the determination of the competency of the wife of the petitioner as a witness.

Both the petitioner and the government, in presenting the case here, put their chief reliance on prior decisions of this court. The government relies on United States v. Reid, 12 How. 361; Logan v. United States, 144 U.S. 263; Hendrix v. United States, 219 U.S. 79; and Jin Fuey Moy

[ 290 U.S. Page 374]

     v. United States, 254 U.S. 189. Petitioner contends that these cases, if not directly contrary to the decisions in Benson v. United States, 146 U.S. 325, and Rosen v. United States, 245 U.S. 467, are so in principle. We shall first briefly review these cases, with the exception of the Hendrix case and the Jin Fuey Moy case, which we leave for consideration until a later point in this opinion.

In the Reid case, two persons had been jointly indicted for a murder committed upon the high seas. They were tried separately, and it was held that one of them was not a competent witness in behalf of the other who was first tried. The trial was had in Virginia; and by a statute of that state passed in 1849, if applicable in a federal court, the evidence would have been competent. Section 34 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 declares that the laws of the several states, except where the Constitution, treaties or statutes of the United States otherwise provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in trials at common law in the courts of the United States in cases where they apply; but the court said that this referred only to civil cases and did not apply in the trial of criminal offenses against the United States. It was conceded that there was no act of Congress prescribing in express words the rule by which the federal courts would be governed in the admission of testimony in criminal cases. "But," the court said (p. 363), "we think it may be found with sufficient certainty, not indeed in direct terms, but by necessary implication, in the acts of 1789 and 1790, establishing the courts of the United States, and providing for the punishment of certain offences."

The court pointed out that the Judiciary Act regulated certain proceedings to be had prior to impaneling the jury, but contained no express provision concerning the mode of conducting the trial after the jury was sworn, and prescribed no rule in respect of the testimony to be taken. Obviously however, it was said, some certain and

[ 290 U.S. Page 375]

     established rule upon the subject was necessary to enable the courts to administer the criminal jurisprudence of the United States, and Congress must have intended to refer them to some known and established rule "which was supposed to be so familiar and well understood in the trial by jury that legislation upon the subject would be deemed superfluous. This is necessarily to be implied from what these acts of Congress omit, as well as from what they contain." (p. 365.) The court concluded that this could not be the common law as it existed at the time of the emigration of the colonists, or the rule which then prevailed in England, and [therefore] the only known rule which could be supposed to have been in the mind of Congress was that which was in force in the respective states when the federal courts were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789. Applying this rule, it was decided that the witness was incompetent.

In the Logan case it was held that the competency of a witness to testify in a federal court sitting in one state, was not affected by his conviction and sentence for felony in another state; and that the competency of another witness was not affected by his conviction of felony in a Texas state court, where the witness had since been pardoned. The indictment was for an offense committed in Texas and there tried. The decision was based not upon any statute of the United States, but upon the ground that the subject "is governed by the common law, which, as has been seen, was the law of Texas . . . at the time of the admission of Texas into the Union as a State." (p. 303.)

We next consider the two cases upon which petitioner relies. In the Benson case two persons were jointly indicted for murder. On motion of the government there was a severance, and Benson was first tried. His co-defendant was called as a witness on behalf of the government. The Reid case had been cited as practically decisive

[ 290 U.S. Page 376]

     of the question. But the court, after pointing out what it conceived to be distinguishing features in that case, said (p. 335), "We do not feel ourselves, therefore, precluded by that case from examining this question in the light of general authority and sound reason." The alleged incompetency of the co-defendant was rested upon two reasons, first, that he was interested, and second, that he was a party to the record, the basis for the exclusion at common law being fear of perjury. "Nor," the court said, "were those named the only grounds of exclusion from the witness stand; conviction of crime, want of religious belief, and other matters were held sufficient. Indeed, the theory of the common law was to admit to the witness stand only those presumably honest, appreciating the sanctity of an oath, unaffected as a party by the result, and free from any of the temptations of interest. The courts were afraid to trust the intelligence of jurors. But the last fifty years have wrought a great change in these respects, and to-day the tendency is to enlarge the domain of competency and to submit to the jury for their consideration as to the credibility of the witness those matters which heretofore were ruled sufficient to justify his exclusion. This change has been wrought partially by legislation and partially by judicial construction." Attention then is called to the fact that Congress in 1864 had enacted that no witness should be excluded from testifying in any civil action, with certain exceptions, because he was a party to or interested in the issue tried; and that in 1878 (c. 37, 20 Stat. 30) Congress made the defendant in any criminal case a competent witness at his own request. The opinion then continues (p. 337):

"Legislation of similar import prevails in most of the States. The spirit of this legislation has controlled the decisions of the courts, and steadily, one by one, the merely technical barriers which excluded witnesses from the stand have been removed, till now it is generally,

[ 290 U.S. Page 377]

     though perhaps not universally, true that no one is excluded therefrom unless the lips of the originally adverse party are closed by death, or unless some one of those peculiarly confidential relations, like that of husband and wife, forbids the breaking of silence.

". . . If interest and being party to the record do not exclude a defendant on trial from the witness stand, upon what reasoning can a co-defendant, not on trial, be adjudged incompetent?"

That case was decided December 5, 1892. Twenty-five years later this court had before it for consideration the case of Rosen v. United States, supra. Rosen had been tried and convicted in a federal district court for conspiracy. A person jointly indicted with Rosen, who had been convicted upon his plea of guilty, was called as a witness by the government and allowed to testify over Rosen's objection. This court sustained the competency of the witness. After saying that while the decision in the Reid case had not been specifically overruled, its authority was seriously shaken by the decisions in both the Logan and Benson cases, the court proceeded to dispose of the question, as it had been disposed of in the Benson case, "in the light of general authority and sound reason."

"In the almost twenty [twenty-five] years," the court said [pp. 471, 472], "which have elapsed since the decision of the Benson Case, the disposition of courts and of legislative bodies to remove disabilities from witnesses has continued, as that decision shows it had been going forward before, under dominance of the conviction of our time that the truth is more likely to be arrived at by hearing the testimony of all persons of competent understanding who may seem to have knowledge of the facts involved in a case, leaving the ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.