1960 – Ferguson, convicted of murder and sentenced to death, appealed to the Supreme Court of the State Georgia on the premise of challenging the validity of the section §38-415 under the Constitution of the Unites States of America. In his case, Ferguson claimed that the given section of the Georgia Code denied him the counsel that his Constitutional rights granted him. The section §38-415 of the Georgia Code fives a person convicted of a crime the right to make a statement without giving an oath or subjecting oneself to cross-examination. The adjacent to it section §38-416 of Georgia Code prohibits that a person charged with criminal offense makes statements under oath on his or her own behalf in his or her own trial. Historically, the two sections intertwine together closely.

Ferguson appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States with the question whether §38-415 limited his right to counsel at each stage in his own trial. He did not challenge the constitutional validity of §38-416 in his appeal. However, the Supreme Court Justices decided to review the validity of that section the Georgia Code as well (“FERGUSON V. GEORGIA, 365 U. S. 570 (1961)”, Footnote 1), despite the absence of the appellant himself as a witness against the clause. The nature of the two sections disputed in the Ferguson vs. Georgia case connects them in a way the design of the latter mitigates the rigor of the incompetency provided in §38-415.

The defendant’s most prominent argument in his case built upon the notion that denying the counsel of that charged with a crime violates the Article VI of the U.S. Bill of Rights, in addition to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. The reason for that lays in the argument that the denial limits the defendant’s ability to defend him or her during the most important time in the trial. The Article VI of the U.S. Bill of Rights gives American citizens the rights to self-representation, counsel throughout the trial process, and confrontation of witnesses, among others. The XIV Amendment to the Constitution reinforces and protects equality of all United States citizens before the law.

The history of the debate of disqualification of witnesses on the basis of interest in the outcome of the trial, that is, the declaration of incompetency of the parties in each case – prohibiting statements under oath from the defendant – goes back to the sixteenth century in England. Suring those times, the process of a trial could fit the description of “a long argument between the prisoner and the counsel for the Crown" (“FERGUSON V. GEORGIA, 365 U. S. 570 (1961)”, Page 365 U.S. 574.) Furthermore, the accused party did not yet have a right for counsel; any disqualification of witnesses on the basis of interest was completely improper because of the nature of the court. Nevertheless, a line of criticisms aroused against the old English system of trial. By the late XVII century, only witnesses could provide evidence in the courtroom; the accused assumed a distant position from his witnesses. The United States came into shape at the time when the common law norm legitimized disqualification by interest in a trial.

In 1784, the State of Georgia ratified an act which stated that the State would obey by the contemporary common law of England, provided that it does not obstruct the articles of the U.S. Constitution (“FERGUSON V. GEORGIA, 365 U. S. 570 (1961)”,Footnote 4.) The State also states directly the claim those witnesses who hold interest in a case to be incompetent to provide evidence. In its reply to Ferguson’s appeal, the Supreme Court of Georgia proclaimed that the defendant’s counsel may perform its services as long as their actions comply with the laws of the State and the U.S. Constitution. Although the case of the State of Georgia does have a good case, the defendant may argue that Georgia’s Code violate the Constitution; therefore, the counsel that obeys by the Code also violates the U.S. Constitution.

The general argument against disqualifications by interest is as follows: every possible piece of evidence should be taken into consideration when in a trial. A person in a rational state of mind is able to make proper judgments giving the status of each witness, including those who take their interest in the outcome of the court’s decision. In opposition for that statement comes the argument that in case if the law accuses an innocent person of a crime, and that person withdraws his or her right to testify for himself or herself, the risk of creating prejudicial opinion in the courtroom against the innocent, but accused, person arouses.

After long deliberation, the United States Supreme Court made a decision which held that, regardless of the nature of a counsel, appointed or hired, or the nature of the criminal offense, the section 38-415 of Georgia’s Code did not obey by the U.S. Constitution. The judgment has been reversed and remanded.


Works Cited

“FERGUSON V. GEORGIA, 365 U. S. 570 (1961).” Justia. Supreme Court Center. 22 Feb 2009 <http://supreme.justia.com/us/365/570/case.html>.