Five Worst Decisions, Part IV

Five Worst Decisions, Part IV

By: Wesley W. Horton

Last time, I said that Buxton v. Ullman, 147 Conn. 48 (1959), one of the four infamous contraception decisions leading up to Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), was the third worst decision in the history of the Connecticut Supreme Court. Today I report on the second worst decision, State v. Taborsky, 147 Conn. 194 (1960).

Messrs. Joseph L. Taborsky and Arthur Culombe were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The evidence included their confessions. In that era, the state police had in its employ one Samuel Rome, a lieutenant at the time, whose specialty was extracting confessions while driving a suspect around the state in a police cruiser for hours on end. That also made it difficult for any lawyer to contact him.

On appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, the Court affirmed the convictions. The decision is a bland one, giving no detailed discussion of Rome’s techniques. In 1960, the Warren Court’s involvement in criminal process was still in the early stages. Taborsky or his lawyers must have thought a petition for certification was hopeless because he did not file one and so was executed.

Meanwhile, Culombe did file a petition, which was granted. After oral argument, Justice Felix Frankfurter, not known for his pro-Warren tendencies, was assigned to write the majority opinion. He, unlike the author of the Connecticut Supreme Court opinion, went into great detail about Rome’s technique and concluded with this blistering statement:

 

But when interrogation of a prisoner is so long continued, with such a purpose, and under such circumstances, as to make the whole proceeding an effective instrument for extorting an unwilling admission of guilt, due process precludes the use of the confession thus obtained. Under our accusatorial system, such an exploitation of interrogation, whatever its usefulness, is not a permissible substitute for judicial trial.

Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568, 635 (1961).

So, unlike the three cases that received my #5, #4 and #3 worst decision awards for what they said, State v. Taborsky wins #2 for what it did not say. It did not say anything while the state police were running riot in the 1950s.

The perceptive reader may note that #4, #3 and #2 were all decided between 1957 and 1960. That is not a coincidence because, as I have explained in detail in The History of the Connecticut Supreme Court (Thomson/West 2008), chapter 9, the time soon after Chief Justice Maltbie retired in 1950 was indeed the nadir in the Court’s history. But #1 is from an entirely different period; you will have to wait until next week to see what a truly awful decision looks like.