Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431; 104 S. Ct. 2501; 81 L. Ed. 2d 377 (1984)

Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431; 104 S. Ct. 2501; 81 L. Ed. 2d 377 (1984)

Facts—On Christmas Eve in 1968 ten-year-old Pamela Powers disappeared from a YMCA building in Des Moines, Iowa. A fourteen-year-old boy subsequently saw Williams carrying a bundle containing two legs wrapped in a blanket to his car. Williams’s car was found in Davenport, Iowa; articles of clothing led police to believe that Williams had dumped the body somewhere along this 160-mile trip. Williams, who was arrested in Davenport, requested his Des Moines attorney, and police agreed to transport him back without questioning him. Police began a search of the area where they thought the girl’s body might be. During the trip, a police officer asked Williams to think about the family of the girl who would not have a Christian burial. Williams subsequently led officers to the girl’s dead body. In Brewer v. Williams, 423 U.S. 1031 (1975), a divided Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right of counsel precluded police from using evidence that they had secured during the trip to Des Moines. The state subsequently retried Williams excluding his confession but using evidence gathered from the body. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the trial court. The U.S. District Court rejected a federal habeas corpus appeal, but the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on the basis that police had acted in bad faith.

Question—Is there an inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule?


ReasonsC.J. Burger (7–2). Past decisions have suppressed evidence regarded as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920). However, this doctrine has not applied when police have gathered evidence from an independent source, therefore assuring “that the prosecution is not put in a worse position simply because of some earlier police error or misconduct.” Burger decided that “Exclusion of physical evidence that would inevitably have been discovered adds nothing to either the integrity or fairness of a criminal trial.” In the case at hand, searchers were within two and one-half miles of where Williams led police to the body, and it was estimated that they would have been at the site within three to five hours. Because it was cold and snowing, the body would have been found in essentially the same condition. It would be pushing the exclusionary rule to the outer limits to apply it to the evidence in this case.

J. White, concurring, took issue with J. Stevens’s negative characterization of the police’s conduct, noting that the Court had split 5–4 in Brewer v. Williams.

J. Stevens, concurring, reiterated his view that police had acted improperly in questioning Williams during his trip to Des Moines.

J. Brennan, dissenting, argued that the standard for ascertaining whether evidence would have been inevitably discovered should not simply be the preponderance of the evidence but clear and convincing evidence.

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