Brewer v. Williams: Can You Unintentionally Waive Your Right to an Attorney?

Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Police car with city lights in background

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Brewer v. Williams asked the Supreme Court to decide what constitutes a “waiver” of someone’s right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment

Fast Facts: Brewer v. Williams

  • Case Argued: October 4, 1976
  • Decision Issued: March 23, 1977
  • Petitioner: Lou V. Brewer, Warden of the Iowa State Penitentiary
  • Respondent: Robert Anthony Williams
  • Key Questions: Did Williams waive his right to counsel when he spoke to the detectives and led them to the victim's body?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Brennan, Stewart, Marshall, Powell, and Stevens
  • Dissenting: Justices Burger, White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that Williams' Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been denied.

Facts of the Case

On December 24, 1968, a 10-year-old girl named Pamela Powers went missing from a YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa. Close to the time of her disappearance, someone matching the description of Robert Williams, a mental hospital escapee, was seen exiting the YMCA with something large wrapped in a blanket. The police began looking for Williams and found his abandoned car 160 miles from the site of the abduction. An arrest warrant was issued.

On December 26, a lawyer contacted officers at the Des Moines police station. He notified them that Williams would turn himself in to the Davenport police. When Williams arrived at the police station, he was booked and read his Miranda warnings.

Williams spoke to his attorney, Henry McKnight, over the phone. The Des Moines police chief and an officer on the case, Detective Leaming, were present for the phone call. McKnight told his client that Detective Leaming would transport him to Des Moines after he was arraigned. Police would not question him on the car ride.

Williams was represented by a different attorney for his arraignment. Detective Leaming and another officer arrived in Davenport that afternoon. The attorney from Williams' arraignment reiterated twice to Detective Leaming that he should not question Williams during the car ride. The attorney stressed that McKnight would be available when they returned to Des Moines for interrogation.

During the car ride, Detective Leaming gave Williams what would later become known as the “Christian burial speech.” He explained that, based on current weather conditions, the girl's body would be covered in snow and she would not be able to receive a proper Christian burial if they did not stop and locate her before reaching Des Moines. Williams led the detectives to the body of Pamela Powers.

While on trial for first-degree murder, Williams’ attorney moved to have the statements Williams made to officers during the 160-mile car ride suppressed. The judge ruled against Williams’ counsel.

The Iowa Supreme Court found that Williams had waived his right to counsel when he spoke to detectives during the car ride. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa granted a writ of habeas corpus and found that Williams had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Constitutional Issues

Was Williams denied his Sixth Amendment right to Counsel? Did Williams unintentionally “waive” his right to counsel by speaking to officers without an attorney present?


An attorney representing Williams argued that the officers deliberately separated Williams from his attorney and questioned him, even though they were fully aware that he had invoked his right to counsel. In fact, Williams and his attorney had stated that he would speak to officers with his attorney present in Des Moines.

The State of Iowa argued that Williams was aware of his right to counsel and did not need to expressly waive it in the back seat of the car on the way to Des Moines. Williams had been made aware of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona and chose to voluntarily speak with officers anyway, the attorney argued.

Majority Opinion

Justice Potter Stewart delivered the 5-4 decision. The majority first concluded that Williams had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Once adversarial proceedings against an individual begin, that individual has a right to have counsel present during interrogations, the majority found. Detective Leaming "deliberately and designedly set out to elicit information from Williams just as surely as—and perhaps more effectively than—if he had formally interrogated him,” Justice Stewart wrote. Detective Leaming was fully aware that Williams had obtained counsel, and intentionally separated him from his attorneys for questioning, the majority found. During the car ride, Detective Leaming did not ask Williams if he wanted to relinquish his right to counsel and interrogated him anyway.

The majority also found that Williams had not waived his right to counsel during the car ride. Justice Stewart wrote that "waiver requires not merely comprehension, but relinquishment, and Williams' consistent reliance upon the advice of counsel in dealing with the authorities refutes any suggestion that he waived that right."

Justice Stewart, on behalf of the majority, acknowledged the pressure Detective Leaming and his superiors faced. That pressure, he wrote, should only reaffirm the importance of ensuring that constitutional rights are not ignored.

Dissenting Opinions

Chief Justice Burger dissented, arguing that Williams’ statements to detectives were voluntary because he had full knowledge of his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney. Chief Justice Burger wrote, “ boggles the mind to suggest that Williams could not understand that leading police to the child's body would have other than the most serious consequences.” He further stated that the exclusionary rule, which suppresses illegally obtained evidence, should not be applied to “non-egregious police conduct.” 


The Supreme Court remanded the case to lower courts for a second trial. At trial, the judge allowed the body of the girl into evidence, citing a footnote in Justice Stewart’s decision. While the statements Williams made to officers were inadmissible, the judge found, the body would have been discovered at a later date, regardless.

A few years later, the Supreme Court again heard arguments on the case over the constitutionality of “inevitable discovery.” In Nix v. Williams (1984), the Court held that “inevitable discovery” is an exception to the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule.


  • Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387 (1977).
  • Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984).
  • "Brewer v.
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Spitzer, Elianna. "Brewer v. Williams: Can You Unintentionally Waive Your Right to an Attorney?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Spitzer, Elianna. (2021, February 17). Brewer v. Williams: Can You Unintentionally Waive Your Right to an Attorney? Retrieved from Spitzer, Elianna. "Brewer v. Williams: Can You Unintentionally Waive Your Right to an Attorney?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).