BURGETT V. TEXAS, 389 U. S. 109 (1967)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109 (1967)

Burgett v. Texas

No. 53.

Argued October 18, 1967

Decided November 13, 1967

389 U.S. 109


Petitioner was charged in a five-count indictment, which was read to the jury at the beginning of the trial, and convicted of "assault with malice aforethought with intent to murder; repetition of offense." The first count charged the assault. The other counts, pursuant to the Texas recidivist statutes, alleged prior felony convictions, one in Texas for burglary, and three in Tennessee for forgery, which, if proved, would have made petitioner subject to life imprisonment upon his being convicted under count one. In the jury's presence the prosecution offered evidence of two differing certified copies of one of the Tennessee convictions and a certified copy of the indictment in the prior Texas prosecution. The court admitted the Texas conviction into evidence, but later sustained petitioner's objection as to that judgment and struck it from the evidence. The court upheld petitioner's objection to the first version of the Tennessee conviction on the ground that the judgment showed on its face that petitioner was not represented by counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. It overruled his objection on the same ground to the second version, which stated that petitioner had appeared "in proper person" but did not add (as did the first version) "without counsel." There was no explanation of the discrepancy between the two versions. Reference was also made in the second version to the jury's having retired to consider its verdict after "argument of counsel," but with no indication whether the word was being used in the singular or plural. After testimony was heard on the substantive offense, the court instructed the jury not to consider the prior offenses for any purpose whatsoever in arriving at its verdict. Petitioner was convicted and appealed, urging error in the reading to the jury of the indictment containing the prior felony conviction counts and in the failure to sustain his objection to the admission into evidence of the second version of the Tennessee conviction. The appellate court upheld the conviction, holding that there had been no error, since the trial court had instructed the jury to disregard

Page 389 U. S. 110

the prior offenses and petitioner had not received the enhanced punishment prescribed by the recidivist statutes.


1. The certified records of the Tennessee conviction raise a presumption that petitioner was denied his right to counsel in that proceeding and that the conviction was void under Gideon. v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335. To permit a conviction obtained in violation of Gideon to be used either to support guilt or enhance punishment for another offense would erode the principle of that case and allow an unconstitutional procedure to injure a defendant twice. Pp. 389 U. S. 114-115.

2. The admission into evidence of a constitutionally invalid prior conviction is inherently prejudicial, and it cannot be said that instructions to disregard such error made it "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" within the meaning of Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18. Spencer v. Texas, 385 U. S. 554, distinguished. Pp. 389 U. S. 115-116.

397 S.W.2d 79, reversed.

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