Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Lisenba v. California which upheld the admissibility of confessions obtained through physical violence and duress. While the Court’s finding was an unfortunate setback to the holding of Chambers v. Florida, Lisenba shows how an unsympathetic defendant sunk an otherwise winning argument which had been used in Chambers.
The case behind Lisenba is disturbing to say the least. Major Raymond “Rattlesnake James” Lisenba was born 1894. After two divorces, one due to sadistic sexual torture, and the other because of infidelity, Mr. Lisenba moved to La Cañada Flintridg California in 1932 with his third wife where he opened a barber shop. Just after moving to the area, Mr. Lisenba took out two life insurance policies on his third wife Winona Wallace. In fall of 1932, Mr. Lisenba and his wife were driving near Glen Grove Colorado when their car went off the road and plunged 150 feet into the rocks below the road. Mr. Lisenba was found on the side of the road without injury. Ms. Wallace was found with minor injuries, a strong odor of alcohol, and a bullet wound behind her ear. Ms. Wallace was taken to an area hospital, stabilized, and sent home with her husband to recover. A month later, Ms. Wallace was found dead in a half-filled bathtub. Inexpiably, the coroner ruled the death an accident caused by water getting into the bullet wound. A later autopsy of Ms. Wallace conducted years after her death revealed she had suffered multiple skull fractures before her death. Mr. Lisenba received ten thousand dollars in life insurance for the death of his third wife.
Following the death of his third wife, Mr. Lisenba took out a life insurance policy on his nephew Cornelius Wright. When Mr. Wright met with Mr. Lisenba while he was on shore leave, Mr. Lisenba allowed Mr. Wright to borrow his car. The car subsequently careened off a cliff because of a complete failure of the steering wheel. Mr. Lisenba subsequently received another ten thousand dollars in life insurance for the death of his nephew.
Mr. Lisenba then met his fourth wife Mary Emma James and immediately took out a life insurance policy on her. In 1935, Mr. Lisenba asked a loyal customer Charles Hope to help him kill his wife for part of her life insurance policy. Mr. Lisenba asked Mr. Hope to bring him two rattlesnakes which he planned to use to kill his wife. Ms. James, who was pregnant at the time, was told by Mr. Lisenba that he had called a doctor to perform an abortion on her. Mr. Lisenba then strapped Ms. James to his kitchen table, blindfolded her, and gagged her mouth. When Mr. Hope brought Mr. Lisenba the rattlesnakes, Mr. Lisenba put the snakes in a box, and put Ms. James foot in the box containing the snakes. The rattlesnakes bit Ms. James foot, and Mr. Lisenba and Mr. Hope went to a local bar to wait for Ms. James to die. When the men returned to the home, they found Ms. James was still alive. Mr. Lisenba, drunk and in a rage, took Ms. James off the table, and drowned her in a small pond behind the home hoping to make her death look like an accident. Mr. Hope left the home after refusing Mr. Lisenba’s order to burn down the home. Ms. James death was ruled an accident until a local bartender called the police to report that Mr. Hope had bragged at length about his involvement in the murder. After his arrest, Mr. Hope confessed to the crime and his part in it.
Mr. Lisenba was arrested on April 19th, 1936, without a warrant and was secured in a nearby house. Over the course of 48 hours, Mr. Lisenba was deprived of food, water, sleep, physically assaulted, and threatened. At no point during those 48 hours was Mr. Lisenba ever informed of his right to remain silent and he was not allowed to communicate with anyone. During this period, Mr. Lisenba denied any involvement with his wife’s death. Mr. Lisenba was formally charged and arrested on April 21st, 1936. On May 3rd, 1936 Mr. Lisenba was again subjected to 24 hours without food, water, sleep, or communication. Mr. Lisenba was again assaulted by an interrogating detective. After being confronted with Mr. Hope’s confession, Mr. Lisenba agreed to confess after he was given something to eat. Mr. Hope was charged with 1st degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Lisenba was charged with 1st degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
Mr. Lisenba subsequently appealed his conviction arguing that his 5th amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated when the court allowed his confession to be admitted into evidence at his trial. Mr. Lisenba had his conviction affirmed by the California Supreme Court in 1939. The California Supreme Court held that Mr. Lisenba’s confession had been voluntary. With his death date approaching, Mr. Lisenba sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court in 1940, and was granted cert in mid-1941.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on October 14th and 15th 1941. Mr. Lisenba argued that his 5th amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated when the state admitted his confession obtained under duress into evidence. Mr. Lisenba also argued that his 14th amendment due process rights had been violated when the state used his past crimes as evidence, and the confession of his co-conspirator. Finally, Mr. Lisenba argued that his confession had not been voluntary and had been obtained through criminal conduct.
The State argued that Mr. Lisenda’s confession had been obtained through duress, but the admission of the confession into evidence had not caused him any harm because of the weight and amount of other evidence used to convict him.
The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on December 8th, 1941. In a 7 – 2 decisions, the Supreme Court affirmed Mr. Lisenba’s conviction for murder. The majority led by Justice Owen Roberts held that while Mr. Lisenba had been assaulted, illegally detained, and coerced into confessing, the Court held that Mr. Lisenba’s confession had been voluntary. The Court held that while Mr. Lisenba’s rights had been violated, they did not raise to level required to violate due process.
The dissent, authored by Justice Hugo Black lambasted the majority for failing to reverse Mr. Lisenba’s case. Justice Black then went on to lay out every single violation of Mr. Lisenba’s rights. This dissent was particularly bitter as Justice Black had just authored the decision in Chambers which held that confessions obtained through duress must be suppressed.
With his conviction affirmed, Mr. Lisenba was executed by hanging on May 1st, 1942. Mr. Lisenba was the last man executed by hanging in California. At his execution, the executioner miscalculated the length of the rope causing Mr. Lisenba’s execution to take 15 minutes for him to die. While the holding in Lisenba was a disappointing set back for the holding in Chambers, the Court would go on to continue to reaffirm the principle that confessions obtained through duress must be suppressed. This case also demonstrates how a unlikable, unsympathetic case can sink an otherwise winning argument. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can assure that your rights are protected.
Written by Hunter J. White
 Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 62 S. Ct. 280 (1941)
 Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 60 S. Ct. 472 (1940)
 People v. Lisenba, 14 Cal. 2d 403, 94 P.2d 569 (1939)