Nix v. Williams

467 US 431 (1984)

(The Missing Body in Iowa Case)

 

Context

Two days after Robert Williams kidnapped and murdered ten-year-old Pamela Powers from a Des Moines, Iowa YMCA on December 24, 1968, he surrendered to the police. After Williams surrendered to police, officers asked him to reveal where he had left the body so they could find it before an approaching snowstorm arrived. The officers had not yet read Williams his Miranda rights, but Williams nonetheless told the officers where he had left Powers’ body. Williams was convicted of first-degree murder, but after appealing his case, Brewer v Williams, the Supreme Court ruled that Williams’ right to counsel had been violated and his conviction was reversed. During his second trial in 1977, the judge convicted Williams of first-degree murder for the second time. The judge ruled that the statements Williams gave to the officers were inadmissible, but the body itself was admissible as evidence since it would have been found by officers regardless of Williams’ statements. Williams again appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Justices heard the case in 1984. In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Nix. Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion, arguing that according to an “inevitable discovery exception” to the exclusionary rule, which had already been accepted in practice in most state and federal courts, the officers had only to prove that the evidence would have inevitably been found even without information illegally obtained from the suspect. As the Justices found that to be the case here, they upheld Williams’ conviction.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Burger, joined by White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor

Concurrence: White

Concurrence: Stevens (in the judgment)

Dissent: Brennan, joined by Marshall

 

Facts:

10-year-old Pamela Powers disappeared from a YMCA building in Des Moines, Iowa, where she had accompanied her parents to watch an athletic contest. Shortly after she disappeared, Williams was seen leaving the YMCA carrying a large bundle wrapped in a blanket; a 14-year-old boy who had helped Williams open his car door reported that he had seen "two legs in it and they were skinny and white."

Williams' car was found the next day 160 miles east of Des Moines in Davenport, Iowa. Later several items of clothing belonging to the child, some of Williams' clothing, and an army blanket like the one used to wrap the bundle that Williams carried out of the YMCA were found at a rest stop on between Des Moines and Davenport. A warrant was issued for Williams' arrest.

The Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation initiated a large-scale search. Two hundred volunteers divided into teams began the search. Searchers were instructed to check all roads, abandoned farm buildings, ditches, culverts, and any other place in which the body of a small child could be hidden.

Meanwhile, Williams surrendered to local police in Davenport, where he was promptly arraigned. police informed counsel they would pick Williams up in Davenport and return him to Des Moines without questioning him. Two Des Moines detectives then drove to Davenport, took Williams into custody, and proceeded to drive him back to Des Moines.

During the return trip, one of the policemen, Detective Leaming, began a conversation with Williams, saying: "I want to give you something to think about while we're traveling down the road. . .. They are predicting several inches of snow for tonight, and I feel that you yourself are the only person that knows where this little girl's body is . . . and if you get a snow on top of it you yourself may be unable to find it. And since we will be going right past the area [where the body is] on the way into Des Moines, I feel that we could stop and locate the body, that the parents of this little girl should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas [Eve] and murdered. . .. [After] a snow storm [we may not be] able to find it at all." He concluded the conversation by saying: "I do not want you to answer me. . .. Just think about it. . .."

Williams asked Leaming whether the police had found the young girl's shoes. After Leaming replied that he was unsure, Williams directed the police to a point near a service station where he said he had left the shoes; they were not found. As they continued the drive to Des Moines, Williams asked whether the blanket had been found and then directed the officers to a rest area in Grinnell where he said he had disposed of the blanket; they did not find the blanket. At this point Leaming and his party were joined by the officers in charge of the search. As they approached Mitchellville, Williams, without any further conversation, agreed to direct the officers to the child's body.

At that time, one search team was only two and one-half miles from where Williams soon guided Leaming and his party to the body. The child's body was found next to a culvert in a ditch beside a gravel road.

Nix v. Williams

Nix v. Williams

Nix v. Williams

Question:

Whether, at respondent Williams' second murder trial in state court, evidence pertaining to the discovery and condition of the victim's body was properly admitted on the ground that it would ultimately or inevitably have been discovered even if no violation of any constitutional or statutory provision had taken place.      

Reasoning:

We need not hold that all evidence is 'fruit of the poisonous tree' simply because it would not have come to light but for the illegal actions of the police. Rather, the more apt question in such a case is 'whether, granting establishment of the primary illegality, the evidence to which instant objection is made has been come at by exploitation of that illegality or instead by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint.'

The "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine has not been limited to cases in which there has been a Fourth Amendment violation. The Court has applied the doctrine where the violations were of the Sixth Amendment, as well as of the Fifth Amendment.

The core rationale consistently advanced by this Court for extending the exclusionary rule to evidence that is the fruit of unlawful police conduct has been that this admittedly drastic and socially costly course is needed to deter police from violations of constitutional and statutory protections. This Court has accepted the argument that the way to ensure such protections is to exclude evidence seized as a result of such violations notwithstanding the high social cost of letting persons obviously guilty go unpunished for their crimes. On this rationale, the prosecution is not to be put in a better position than it would have been in if no illegality had transpired.

Exclusion of physical evidence that would inevitably have been discovered adds nothing to either the integrity or fairness of a criminal trial. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel protects against unfairness by preserving the adversary process in which the reliability of proffered evidence may be tested in cross-examination.

Here, however, Detective Leaming's conduct did nothing to impugn the reliability of the evidence in question -- the body of the child and its condition as it was found, articles of clothing found on the body, and the autopsy. No one would seriously contend that the presence of counsel in the police car when Leaming appealed to Williams' decent human instincts would have had any bearing on the reliability of the body as evidence. Suppression, in these circumstances, would do nothing whatever to promote the integrity of the trial process, but would inflict a wholly unacceptable burden on the administration of criminal justice.

When, as here, the evidence in question would inevitably have been discovered without reference to the police error or misconduct, there is no nexus sufficient to provide a taint and the evidence is admissible.

There was testimony that it would have taken an additional three to five hours to discover the body if the search had continued, the body was found near a culvert, one of the kinds of places the teams had been specifically directed to search.

On this record it is clear that the search parties were approaching the actual location of the body, and we are satisfied, along with three courts earlier, that the volunteer search teams would have resumed the search had Williams not earlier led the police to the body and the body inevitably would have been found. The evidence asserted by Williams as newly discovered, i. e., certain photographs of the body and deposition testimony of Agent Ruxlow made in connection with the federal habeas proceeding, does not demonstrate that the material facts were inadequately developed in the suppression hearing in state court or that Williams was denied a full, fair, and adequate opportunity to present all relevant facts at the suppression hearing.

Holding:

The evidence was properly admitted because it ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered.

 

Key Takeaway

If the evidence would have been obtained legally eventually anyway, then it's admissible. To be inevitable, the preponderance of the evidence has to suggest the evidence would be found. Additionally, police cannot say, "Well, we could've got a warrant if we wanted."           


Court Syllabus:

Following the disappearance of a 10-year-old girl in Des Moines, Iowa, respondent was arrested and arraigned in Davenport, Iowa. The police informed respondent's counsel that they would drive respondent back to Des Moines without questioning him, but during the trip one of the officers began a conversation with respondent that ultimately resulted in his making incriminating statements and directing the officers to the child's body. A systematic search of the area that was being conducted with the aid of 200 volunteers and that had been initiated before respondent made the incriminating statements was terminated when respondent guided police to the body. Before trial in an Iowa state court for first-degree murder, the court denied respondent's motion to suppress evidence of the body and all related evidence, including the body's condition as shown by an autopsy, respondent having contended that such evidence was the fruit of his illegally obtained statements made during the automobile ride. Respondent was convicted, and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed, but later federal-court habeas corpus proceedings ultimately resulted in this Court's holding that the police had obtained respondent's incriminating statements through interrogation in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. However, it was noted that even though the statements could not be admitted at a second trial, evidence of the body's location and condition might be admissible on the theory that the body would have been discovered even if the incriminating statements had not been elicited from respondent. At respondent's second state-court trial, his incriminating statements were not offered in evidence, nor did the prosecution seek to show that respondent had directed the police to the child's body. However, evidence concerning the body's location and condition was admitted, the court having concluded that the State had proved that if the search had continued the body would have been discovered within a short time in essentially the same condition as it was actually found. Respondent was again convicted of first-degree murder, and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed. In subsequent habeas corpus proceedings, the Federal District Court, denying relief, also concluded that the body inevitably would have been found. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that -- even assuming that there is an inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule -- the State had not met the exception's requirement that it be proved that the police did not act in bad faith.

Held: The evidence pertaining to the discovery and condition of the victim's body was properly admitted at respondent's second trial on the ground that it would ultimately or inevitably have been discovered even if no violation of any constitutional provision had taken place.

(a) The core rationale for extending the exclusionary rule to evidence that is the fruit of unlawful police conduct is that such course is needed to deter police from violations of constitutional and statutory protections notwithstanding the high social cost of letting obviously guilty persons go unpunished. On this rationale, the prosecution is not to be put in a better position than it would have been in if no illegality had transpired. By contrast, the independent source doctrine -- allowing admission of evidence that has been discovered by means wholly independent of any constitutional violation -- rests on the rationale that society's interest in deterring unlawful police conduct and the public interest in having juries receive all probative evidence of a crime are properly balanced by putting the police in the same, not a worse, position that they would have been in if no police error or misconduct had occurred. Although the independent source doctrine does not apply here, its rationale is wholly consistent with and justifies adoption of the ultimate or inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. If the prosecution can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the information ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means -- here the volunteers' search -- then the deterrence rationale has so little basis that the evidence should be received.

(b) Under the inevitable discovery exception, the prosecution is not required to prove the absence of bad faith, since such a requirement would result in withholding from juries relevant and undoubted truth that would have been available to police absent any unlawful police activity. This would put the police in a worse position than they would have been in if no unlawful conduct had transpired and would fail to take into account the enormous societal cost of excluding truth in the search for truth in the administration of justice. Significant disincentives to obtaining evidence illegally -- including the possibility of departmental discipline and civil liability -- lessen the likelihood that the ultimate or inevitable discovery exception will promote police misconduct.

(c) There is no merit to respondent's contention that because he did not waive his right to the assistance of counsel, and because the Sixth Amendment exclusionary rule is designed to protect the right to a fair trial, competing values may not be balanced in deciding whether the challenged evidence was properly admitted. Exclusion of physical evidence that would inevitably have been discovered adds nothing to either the integrity or fairness of a criminal trial. Nor would suppression ensure fairness on the theory that it tends to safeguard the adversary system of justice.

(d) The record here supports the finding that the search party ultimately or inevitably would have discovered the victim's body. The evidence clearly shows that the searchers were approaching the actual location of the body, that the search would have been resumed had respondent not led the police to the body, and that the body inevitably would have been found.