Brewer v. Williams

Following is the case brief for Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387 (1977).

Case Summary of Brewer v. Williams:

  • Respondent Williams abducted and murdered a 10-year-old girl.  Two days later he turned himself in after speaking to his attorney.
  • While he was transported by police officers to the jurisdiction where the crime occurred, an officer appealed to Williams’ religious beliefs by stating that the girl should have a “Christian burial.”  In response, Williams led police to where he buried the body.
  • Williams was convicted of murder and the State courts upheld the conviction, holding that Williams waived his right to counsel when led police to the body.
  • Following a habeas petition, the U.S. Supreme Court held that police violated Williams’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel by interrogating him (through the “Christian burial speech”) without a lawyer being present.  It also held that Williams did not intentionally waive his right to counsel.

Brewer v. Williams Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

  • The Crime

On Christmas Eve in 1968, respondent Williams abducted a 10-year-old girl from a YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa, during a sporting event at the facility.  Williams, who had recently escaped a mental institution, subsequently murdered the girl and buried the body.  Two days later, Williams phoned his attorney regarding the crime.  His attorney advised Williams to turn himself into the Davenport police (where Williams was then located).  Williams was arraigned on the crime before a court in Davenport.

  • The “Christian Burial Speech”

It was decided that Detective Leaming and another officer, both from the Des Moines Police Department, would pick up Williams in Davenport and drive him back to Des Moines so Williams could speak with his attorney and give a statement to the police.  Williams was told not to speak to police during the 160-mile trip by both his attorney in Des Moines and the attorney representing him in Davenport.  In addition, Detective Leaming was told not to interrogate Williams about the crime during the drive.

Yet, during the drive, Detective Leaming said to Williams that it was starting to snow, that the weather would make it difficult to find the body, and that it would be a shame if the girl’s family would not be able to give her a “Christian burial.”  Leaming knew that Williams was a former mental patient and deeply religious.  In response to Leaming’s speech, Williams directed the police officers to the girl’s body.  Williams was then charged with murder in Des Moines.

Procedural History:

The State trial court denied Williams’ motion to suppress the incriminating statements he made to the police during the drive to Des Moines.  After a trial, he was convicted of murder.  The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, holding that Williams waived his right to counsel during the drive.

Williams filed a habeas petition before the Federal District Court.  The District Court held that Williams’ right to assistance of counsel had been violated.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that holding.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issues and Holdings:

  1. Was the officer’s “Christian burial speech” an interrogation, thereby violating Williams’ Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel?  Yes.
  2. Did Williams waive his right to counsel by leading the officers to the girl’s body?  No.


The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judgment is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

  1. Under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, a person is entitled to the assistance of counsel from the time judicial proceedings are initiated against that person.
  2. The Government has the burden to show that a person intentionally waived a known right, like the right to counsel.


  • The Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel

Williams was arraigned in Davenport.  There was no question that judicial proceedings against Williams had already begun — and therefore the Sixth Amendment right to counsel attached — before the drive to Des Moines.  Detective Leaming deliberately set out to elicit incriminating statements from Williams through his “Christian burial speech.”  Thus, Leaming improperly interrogated Williams without an attorney, violating Williams’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

  • Waiver of the Right to Counsel

The State has the burden to show Williams intentionally waived a known right, such as his right to counsel.  The State did not meet that burden.  Williams and Leaming were told not to discuss the crime during the drive, and Williams expressed to Leaming that he would make a statement after speaking with his attorney in Des Moines, not before.  It was only after Leaming appealed to Williams’ religious beliefs that Williams made incriminating statements.  Therefore, Williams did not intentionally waive his right to counsel.

The Court concluded the decision by recognizing the horrific nature of the crime.  The Court cautioned, however, that the passions aroused by a particular crime cannot, and should not, result in failing to follow the Constitution.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Marshall):

The dissenting justices are wrong if they think “good police work” is catching a criminal at any price.  If the Government breaks the law in the name of enforcing it, it breeds contempt for the law and leads to anarchy.

Concurring Opinion (Powell):

The dissenting justices, who believe Williams waived his right to counsel, fail to see the fact that Detective Leaming ignored direct instructions, isolated Williams, and purposefully violated his right to counsel.

Concurring Opinion (Stevens):

Because of the strong language in the dissenting opinions, it is important to reiterate that a court should apply the law dispassionately, despite the disturbing nature of a case.

Dissenting Opinion (Burger):

The Court’s decision leads to an absurd result.  Williams waived his right to counsel.  And even if Detective Leaming behaved improperly, the exclusionary rule is not the correct remedy.

Dissenting Opinion (White):

The facts indicate that Williams knowingly waived his rights, and Leaming’s statements do not amount to coercion.

Dissenting Opinion (Blackmun):

Detective Leaming’s conduct was not so obviously nefarious.  His comments may not be considered “interrogation,” and he had a heightened interest because the girl could still have been alive.


Brewer v. Williams is well-known because of its famous “Christian burial speech.”  It presaged Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980), which holds that interrogation is not only express questioning, but any statements reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.  Although the dissenting justices in Brewer v. Williams worried that respondent could not be retried for the heinous murder, he was eventually retried and again convicted of first-degree murder.  That decision was upheld in Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984).

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