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Adamson v. California

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Significance: Reaffirming that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination was not applicable to the states, the Supreme Court reiterated that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated only those procedural rights considered essential to a fair trial.


When tried for murder, Admiral D. Adamson did not testify, because of his prior criminal record. The district attorney, as permitted by applicable state law at the time, told the jury that Adamson's refusal to testify was a good reason to infer his guilt. The Supreme Court had earlier permitted this practice in Twining v. New Jersey (1908). After Adamson was convicted, his attorney argued that permitting the prosecutorial comment was a violation of the Fifth Amendment. A 5-4 majority of the Court upheld the conviction, based on the long-standing doctrine that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require the states to honor all the privileges and protections of the Bill of Rights. Adamson is notable primarily because of Hugo L. Black's long dissent, which used historical data to argue for the “total incorporation” of the entire Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Felix Frankfurter's concurring opinion defended the alternative theory of “selective incorporation.” Although subsequent Courts have never accepted Black's perspective, the privilege against self-incrimination was made binding on the states in Malloy v. Hogan (1964). This privilege was interpreted to prohibit prosecutorial comment on a defendant's failure to testify in Griffin v. California (1965).