Historic Supreme Court Decisions
McDougall Litell

Escobedo v. Illinois (1964)

Danny Escobedo's brother-in-law was killed on January 19, 1960.  At about 2:30 in the morning, Escobedo was arrested without a warrant and taken to the Chicago police headquarters for questioning.  Escobedo made no statement to the police and was released at approximately 5:00 that afternoon, after his lawyer obtained a writ of habeas corpus.

Ten days later, on January 30, Escobedo was again arrested, handcuffed, and driven to the police station.  On the way to the sta tion, the police allegedly informed Escobedo that a man named Benedict DiGerlando had said it was Escobedo who had fired the shots that killed his brother-in-law.  The police also allegedly told Escobedo that the case against him was pretty secure and he might as well "come clean" and admit to the killing.  At that point, Escobedo asked to have his lawyer present before answering any questions.

The police questioned Escobedo for several hours, during which he continued to ask for his attorney.  He was told that he could do so after the police concluded their interrogation.  Escobedo's attorney, who was at the police station on another matter, discovered that Escobedo was in custody.  He asked repeatedly to speak to his client but got the same answer: He could see Escobedo after the questioning.

While interrogating Escobedo, the police told him that they had DiGerlando in custody. They asked Escobedo if he would like to call DiGerlando a liar to his face.  Escobedo said he would, and when the two men met, Escobedo said to DiGerlando: "I didn't shoot Manuel-yo4 did." This statement placed Escobedo at the crime scene for the first time or, at the least, showed that he had knowledge of the crime.  As the questioning continued, Escobedo gave other information that incriminated himself, his sister, and DiGerlando in the murder of his brother-in-law.

Before his trial, and on appeal, Escobedo asked the court to suppress all information gathered during the interrogation without his attorney.  The motion was denied, and Escobedo was convicted of the murder of his brother-in-law.

In February 1963, the Illinois Supreme Court heard Escobedo's appeal, ruled that the information should not have been allowed as evidence, and reversed the decision of the lower court.  However, the state appealed for a rehearing.  Saying that Escobedo had given the information voluntarily, the state asked the court to rule in favor of the prosecution and admit the evidence.  The court agreed.

Escobedo then petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review the case.  The issue before the Court: Was the refusal by police to honor Escobedo's request to consult with his lawyer a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights?

The U. S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4, said that Escobedo's rights had been violated.  Overturning the ruling of the state supreme court, it declared that the information was not admissible as evidence because it had been unlawfully obtained.

Writing for the Court, Justice Arthur Goldberg explained the point at which a police procedure became "accusatory" instead of 'investigatory:"

... [when] the investigation is no longer a general inquiry into an unsolved crime but has begun to focus on a particular subject, ... the police carry out a process of interrogation that lends itself to eliciting incriminating statements, the suspect has requested and been denied an opportunity to consult with his lawyer, and the police have not effectively warned him of his absolute constitutional right to remain silent, the accused has been denied 'the Assistance of Counsel" in violation of the Sixth Amendment .... [N]o statement elicited by the police during the interrogation may be used against him at a criminal trial.

The dissenting justices expressed their serious concerns that this decision would make it much more difficult for the police to obtain information and for prosecutors to gain convictions.

Writing in dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan stated:

I would affirm the judgment of the Supreme Court of Illinois.... I think the rule announced today is most ill-conceived and that it seriously and unjustly fetters perfectly legitimate methods of criminal law enforcement.

Justice Byron White wrote the dissenting opinion for himself and Justices Clark and Stewart:

I do not suggest for a moment that law enforcement will be destroyed by the rule announced today.  The need for peace and order is too insistent for that.  But it will be crippled and its task made a great deal more difficult, for/unsound, unstated reasons which can find no home in any of the provisions of the Constitution.

The significance of the Escobedo case was its broadened interpretation of the Constitution concerning the Sixth Amendment protections for those accused of crimes.  It extended the time frame during which suspects were entitled to have a lawyer present beyond the trial itself to the time of the interrogation.  The decision was widely criticized by police officers who depended on confessions for evidence.  It also raised many questions: it seemed to imply that suspects should be-told of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney.


(writ of) habeas corpus Court order requiring that a person in custody be brought before a court so a judge can determine the legality of keeping him or her in jail.

incriminate To involve in or charge with a crime or other illegal act.

suppress In court, to not allow certain evidence to be presented.



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