IRVIN V. DOWD, 359 U. S. 394 (1959)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Irvin v. Dowd, 359 U.S. 394 (1959)

Irvin v. Dowd

No. 63

Argued January 15, 1959

Decided May 4, 1959

359 U.S. 394


In an Indiana State Court, petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He escaped from custody and, while he was still at large, his counsel made a timely motion for a new trial, specifying 415 grounds of error constituting an alleged denial of federal constitutional rights. The trial court, in denying the motion, noted that petitioner was an escapee when the motion was made and decided. After his return to custody, petitioner filed a timely appeal to the State Supreme Court from the judgment of conviction, assigning as the only error the denial of the motion for a new trial. Under Indiana law, the appeal presented the State Supreme Court with two issues: (1) Whether the motion for a new trial was correctly denied because petitioner was an escapee at the time it was made, or (2) whether it was correctly denied because the trial did not, as petitioner alleged, deprive him of his constitutional rights. The Indiana Supreme Court discussed both issues in its opinion affirming the denial of the motion for a new trial. Subsequently, petitioner applied to a Federal District Court for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. The District Court dismissed the writ on the ground that petitioner had not exhausted his state remedies, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Both Courts considered that the judgment of the Indiana Supreme Court rested on a holding that petitioner's motion for a new trial was properly denied because he was an escapee at the time it was made.


1. The opinion of the Indiana Supreme Court is more reasonably read as resting the judgment on the holding that the petitioner's constitutional claim is without merit. In this way, the State Supreme Court discharged its obligation to "guard, enforce, and protect every right granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States." Robb v. Connolly, 111 U. S. 624, 111 U. S. 637. Pp. 359 U. S. 403-404.

2. The doctrine of exhaustion of state remedies, which was codified in 28 U.S.C. § 2254, does not bar resort to federal habeas

Page 359 U. S. 395

corpus if the petitioner has obtained a decision on his constitutional claims from the highest court of a State, even though, as here, that court could have based its decision on another ground. Brown v. Allen, 344 U. S. 443, distinguished. Pp. 359 U. S. 404-406.

3. The question is not reached whether federal habeas corpus would have been available to petitioner had the Indiana Supreme Court rested its decision on the escape ground. P. 359 U. S. 406.

4. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to that Court, which may decide the merits of petitioner's constitutional claim or remand to the District Court for further consideration of that claim. Pp. 359 U. S. 406-407.

251 F.2d 548, reversed.

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