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Wilson v. Lash

February 3, 1972


Kiley and Fairchild, Circuit Judges, and Campbell, Senior District Judge.*fn1

Author: Kiley

KILEY, Circuit Judge.

The district court dismissed petitioner Wilson's habeas corpus petition to set aside his conviction, by a jury, of a 1963 Indiana murder. Wilson has appealed. We affirm.

Wilson was tried, by a jury, in Huntington County, Indiana, for the murder of an old woman in Warren, Indiana. His retained attorney was Bangs, owner and publisher at the time of the Huntington News, published and circulated in the county. Wilson was convicted, and on appeal the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed. Wilson v. State, 247 Ind. 680, 221 N.E.2d 347. Bangs represented Wilson both at trial and on appeal in the Indiana courts.

This is the second time we have reviewed the dismissal of Wilson's habeas proceeding. The first time we reversed the judgment and remanded the cause for an evidentiary hearing. Wilson v. Phend, 417 F.2d 1197 (7th Cir. 1969). We thought Wilson's allegations, taken as true, were "clearly sufficient" to indicate constitutional violations in prejudicial publicity before and during the trial and in Bangs' conflict of interest in his dual role as attorney for Wilson and newspaper publisher. We ordered an inquiry into: (1) the extent and nature of the alleged prejudicial publicity; (2) the possibility of prejudice to Wilson from his retained trial attorney Bangs' alleged conflict of interest in serving as his attorney while publishing a newspaper in Huntington County, Indiana, where the trial was held; and (3) Bangs' alleged failure to produce exculpatory alibi witnesses and evidence of an automobile accident allegedly bearing on Wilson's innocence.

On remandment the district court appointed counsel for Wilson and conducted a hearing in excess of two days. The court adopted findings of fact contrary to Wilson's allegations and concluded that Wilson's trial was not prejudiced by publicity before or during trial either by Bangs' newspaper or other newspapers circulated in Huntington County; and that Bangs' conflict of interest did not violate Wilson's Sixth Amendment right to effective representation at the trial.

At the evidentiary hearing, Wilson had the burden of proving the allegations presented in the habeas petition. And inasmuch as a habeas action is a civil proceeding, we can set aside the district court findings only if they are clearly erroneous. F.R.C.P. 81(a) (2); 52(a); United States ex rel. Crump v. Sain, 295 F.2d 699, 701 (7th Cir. 1961). The record before us does not support Wilson's contention that the district court was required to hold that he was denied a fair trial and denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective representation. We think the district court findings are substantially supported by the record, are not clearly erroneous, and justify the court's conclusions.


The district court found that the newspaper articles reporting the murder from outside Huntington County and distributed within the county "were factually oriented, and could not be considered inflammatory or of such a nature as would tend to create prejudice in the minds of the reader." As to pre-trial publicity, the court found that it had not "whipped the public into such a frenzy that petitioner was adjudged guilty long before his trial," as Wilson alleged. As to publicity during the trial -- against the ill effects of which Wilson alleged Bangs did not protect him -- the court found that the jury, on Bangs' motion, had been sequestered prior to trial, completely cut off from the news media, and further ordered by the judge to read no news media coverage. The court further found a lack of proof that any of the twelve jurors could have been, or were, prejudiced or affected by any news account in any newspaper, magazine, radio or television program.

We have read the collection of pretrial June newspaper clippings from several Indiana newspapers, including the Huntington Herald-Press, dominant Huntington County paper. The newspaper articles for the most part are no more nor less factual than could normally be expected when written contemporaneously with the "gruesome" murder of a respected old woman*fn2 in a small town like Warren: headlines, stark photoghaphs including handcuffing of Wilson, and customary police statements. In our opinion the court could reasonably find that the late June 1963 publicity was not likely to have so prejudiced the Huntington County people from which the Wilson jury was selected the following October that the defendant could not have received a fair trial.

Bangs' own newspaper, the Huntington News, consisted of four to six pages with a circulation of a little over 300 in the county*fn3 of approximately 33,000 population. The record supports the district court findings. Only six articles about the murdered woman or Wilson appeared in the paper. Only four of these articles written while Bangs was Wilson's lawyer could have been seen by the jury. They comprised but fifteen "column inches," were short, non-inflammatory and related to facts calmly reported. The court was not compelled to find that the jury was prejudiced against Wilson because of the Huntington News publicity.

Finally, we see no merit in the argument that the district court was required to find prejudice per se in a pretrial report by Bangs' newspaper of a sheriff's comment that ballistics tests of Wilson's guns and blood on Wilson's pants "should tell them much;" and in a factual story that Wilson was an AWOL soldier.


There is an appearance of prejudicial impropriety in Bangs' role serving conflicting interests: representing Wilson in the vital attorney-client relationship, and simultaneously publishing a newspaper in Huntington County. Normally an attorney -- assuming a similar dual role in a gruesome murder trial likely to create a hostile environment within a small community -- would need heroic virtue to adhere steadfastly to the requisite neutral line between such conflicting interests. But we are unable to say that the district court was compelled to find the conflict of interest was per se so prejudicial to Wilson that his Sixth Amendment right was violated.*fn4 ...

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