The Supreme Court’s 1944 decision in Lyons v. Oklahoma, affirming the murder conviction of W.D. Lyons, a poor, young, black man from rural Oklahoma, failed to garner mention in any major newspaper. Now almost seventy years old, Lyons has received little attention among legal scholars and historians. But the story of W.D. Lyons offers the modern reader a window into the world of criminal justice during the Jim Crow era.
Rather than being an obscure footnote in the history of constitutional criminal procedure, or just another example of racial discrimination in the pre-civil rights era, Lyons is an important case that deserves to be revisited. Lyons presents an intriguing constitutional puzzle that provides insight into the confused evolution of coerced confessions and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment under the Hughes, Stone, and Vinson Courts. Interestingly, this period marks the beginning of both the doctrine and the debates that ultimately culminated in Miranda v. Arizona, a case that continues to be a source of controversy.
This Note examines the early evolution of the doctrine surrounding coerced confessions and the Due Process Clause, using Lyons as a point of departure. Lyons provides an excellent case study in that it shares many characteristics with the early Southern cases that inspired the coerced confession doctrine, yet it also marks the boundary that divides one stage of cases from the other. Finally, Lyons also casts light upon the larger jurisprudential battles that divided the Supreme Court in the 1940s and beyond.