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United States v. Deegan

decided: November 1, 1971.


Friendly, Chief Judge, Clark, Associate Justice,*fn* and Kaufman, Circuit Judge.

Author: Kaufman

IRVING R. KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge:

After more than twelve years of legal maneuvering, Caswell Lathan, Jr. asks this court to reverse the denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on allegedly involuntary admissions used against him at trial.

Lathan was charged with first degree murder for the July 23, 1959, slaying of Gertrude Stransky. He was tried and convicted in the Bronx County Court before Judge Schulz and a jury.*fn1 Although this conviction was sustained on direct appeal to the Appellate Division and the New York Court of Appeals, People v. Lathan, 15 A.D.2d 906 (1st Dept.), aff'd. 12 N.Y.2d 822, 236 N.Y.S.2d 345, 187 N.E.2d 359 (1962), remittitur amended, 13 N.Y.2d 670, 241 N.Y.S.2d 164, 191 N.E.2d 668 (1963), the Supreme Court of the United States remanded the case to the New York Court of Appeals for further proceedings consistent with this opinion in Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, 84 S. Ct. 1774, 12 L. Ed. 2d 908 (1964). Lathan v. New York, 378 U.S. 566, 84 S. Ct. 1923, 12 L. Ed. 2d 1038 (1964). Jackson declared unconstitutional the New York procedure which required defendants to challenge the voluntariness of confessions before the trial jury.*fn2

In accordance with an order of the New York Court of Appeals, the Bronx County Supreme Court held a Huntley hearing to determine the voluntariness of the confession. People v. Lathan, 15 N.Y.2d 723, 256 N.Y.S.2d 935, 205 N.E.2d 200 (1965).*fn3 Justice Spector, who presided over the hearing, heard testimony from Lathan and thirteen witnesses for the State. The hearing was anything but perfunctory and a lengthy opinion was filed more than a month after the hearing commenced. Justice Spector, after making detailed findings of fact, concluded that Lathan's confession was voluntary and thus properly admitted at this trial. This order was affirmed by the Appellate Division, People v. Lathan, 30 A.D.2d 1053, 294 N.Y.S.2d 676 (1st Dept.1968), the Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari, Lathan v. New York, 397 U.S. 941, 90 S. Ct. 954, 25 L. Ed. 2d 122 (1970). Having thus exhausted his state court remedies, Lathan sought habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254 in the District Court for the Southern District of New York. Judge Palmieri denied the petition without a hearing, concluding on the basis of the facts found after the full state Huntley hearing that the confession was voluntary as a matter of federal constitutional law.*fn4

We affirm the order denying the petition for habeas corpus relief.*fn5


A brief statement of the alleged crime and the confession elicited are necessary to an understanding and disposition of Lathan's claims. Gertrude Stransky was killed in her Bronx apartment on July 23, 1959, by repeated stabbings. In addition, two rings, other jewelry and some cash belonging to her were stolen. The police uncovered fingerprints in the apartment, and a knife, the suspected murder weapon, was found in an automobile parked nearby.

Lathan, eighteen years old and on furlough from the Army at the time, was apprehended while burglarizing a Yonkers apartment and was taken to a Yonkers police precinct on August 9. After a short interrogation, Lathan signed a confession to the Yonkers burglary charge.*fn6 He was arraigned without counsel on August 10 and transferred to the Westchester County Jail.

On August 11 two military police, aware only of Lathan's Yonkers burglary arrest, visited him to ascertain his military status. They testified at the Huntley hearing and Justice Spector found, contrary to Lathan's claim, that they did not promise Lathan that the military would provide assistance.

Meanwhile, the Stransky investigation zeroed in on Lathan. In an hour long session with four detectives, also on August 11, Lathan denied any knowledge of the Stransky homicide. He insisted also that he had not been in the area of the Bronx apartment house on July 23.

The man who was to prove to be Lathan's chief antagonist, Detective Tobias Stegman of the New York City Police Department, visited Lathan the next day. Instead of disclosing his identity, however, Stegman, dressed in civilian clothes, introduced himself as a lieutenant-colonel in the army and showed Lathan his Army identification card. Close scrutiny of the card would have disclosed that Stegman was a member of the Army Reserves. Stegman spoke with Lathan of his Army experiences and stated "the Army and I want to help you."

The coincidental visit of the military police may have helped create the illusion in Lathan's mind that the Army was trying to help him. In any event, Lathan began talking about his adventures since leaving his Army post, including a walk to the Bronx on the night of July 23. Lathan revealed that he ascended to the roof of a building to which he had once delivered newspapers and admitted entering an apartment through a window.*fn7 Stegman then stated to Lathan that he knew that a homicide had taken place in that apartment and that Lathan's fingerprints had been found there. Lathan refused to go beyond his admission that he had entered the apartment in question. After conferring with his associates who had remained outside the interrogation room, Stegman unsuccessfully questioned Lathan again. The total time involved in these sessions was less than two hours.

Stegman returned to question Lathan the following day in the Westchester County District Attorney's Office. After an initial fruitless interrogation, Stegman met with his associates and then returned and confronted Lathan with the murder weapon and a photograph of the victim. Lathan remained firm in his denial that he killed Mrs. Stransky. At this point, Assistant District Attorney Farrell and Chief of Detectives Walsh, entered the room. Walsh now made an unsuccessful attempt to secure a confession from Lathan, while Stegman maintained his silence. Walsh and Farrell left after approximately ten minutes, and Lathan was again alone with Stegman. Becoming fully aware that the evidence against him was overwhelming and that his further denials would accomplish nothing, Lathan launched into his detailed confession.*fn8 At the Huntley hearing, Lathan contended for the first time that he was motivated to confess only after a promise by Stegman that Lathan would be placed in a mental hospital if he ...

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