Griffin v. California: Summary & Decision

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

The Fifth Amendment protects individuals from testifying against themselves. In this lesson, we will explore the Supreme Court's decision in Griffin v. California and learn of its impact on that right.

To Speak or Not to Speak

Inside the growing crowd, townsfolk had a man bound and gagged. They caught him kneeling over the body of his stepson lying in a trash heap at the edge of town. The sheriff walked up and pulled the gag from his mouth. ''Why'd you do it Charles!?'' the sheriff asked. All eyes were on Charles who said nothing and hung his head.

Is Charles guilty? Does his silence say anything? This powerful inference is at the heart of Griffin v. California as the Supreme Court wrestled with a defendant's right to remain silent.

The Right to be Silent

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that in a criminal case, a defendant shall not be compelled to speak against himself or herself. This gives a defendant the right not to take the stand if called by the prosecutor. But if on the stand by choice, he or she can plead the fifth which means that if by answering a question he or she thinks the answer might be incriminating, they can refuse to answer. It was this right to be silent that the Supreme Court considered in Griffin v. California.

The Case

Edward Griffin had been invited into a the home of his friend Eddie Seay who lived there with the victim Essie Mae. After a bit, Seay went to bed but woke to the sounds of a struggle. He found Griffin wrestling with his girlfriend. Seay was able to get Griffin out of the apartment, but he returned after breaking a window. He struck Seay who ran for help, and when he came back, his apartment was empty. The next morning, a witness saw Griffin buttoning his pants coming out of a large trash box in an alley near the apartment. Essie Mae clung to life for a few days, but died in the hospital from her wounds. Griffin was arrested for murder.

At the trial, Griffin invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to take the stand. In his closing statement, the prosecutor spoke to the jury about Griffin's decision not to take the stand:

''He would know that. He would know how she got down the alley. He would know how the blood got on the bottom of the concrete steps. He would know how long he was with her in that box. He would know how her wig got off. He would know whether he beat her or mistreated her. He would know whether he walked away from that place cool as a cucumber when he saw Mr. Villasenor, because he was conscious of his own guilt and wanted to get away from that damaged or injured woman.

These things he has not seen fit to take the stand and deny or explain. And, in the whole world, if anybody would know, this defendant would know. Essie Mae is dead; she can't tell you her side of the story. The defendant won't.''

Edward Griffin was found guilty and received the death penalty which triggered an automatic appeal.

The Question for the Court

At the time of the case, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination had only been recently extended to the states in Molly v. Hogan (1964) as part of the incorporation doctrine. This was a process whereby the rights found in the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution were applied to the states after the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868. The purpose of the 14th Amendment was to give some of the rights found in the U.S. Constitution to the citizens of the states and to give the federal government the ability to enforce those rights.

In Griffin, the court was asked whether a California law that allowed a prosecutor to comment on the defendant's choice to not take the stand violated the Fifth Amendment's right of a defendant to not self-incriminate. The federal government had already passed a no-comment law that prohibited the practice in federal courts, but that law was not binding on the states, so the court took up this issue. To decide this, the Griffin court looked at whether allowing the comment was the same as speaking against one's self.

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