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Recent Developments, Further Readings

A statement by which an individual acknowledges his or her guilt in the commission of a crime.

One vital function of the U.S. judicial system is to determine the guilt or innocence of suspects who have been accused of crimes. Confessions can play a key role in making this determination. Courts in the U.S. have recognized the fallibility of inaccurate or involuntary confessions—such as those that have been obtained as the result of threats or trickery—and have developed a body of law to prevent untrustworthy confessions from jeopardizing a criminal defendant's CIVIL RIGHTS.

Confessions were always allowed as evidence in early English common-law trials, even when torture was used to elicit them. Not until the mid–eighteenth century did judges in England start to admit only confessions that they deemed trustworthy. To determine the trustworthiness of a confession, judges considered the circumstances surrounding it, whether a threat or promise coerced the suspect to confess, and whether the suspect confessed voluntarily.

The U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the issue of confessions in the 1884 case of Hopt v. Utah, 110 U.S. 574, 4 S. Ct. 202, 28 L. Ed. 262. Following the English common-law standard, the Court looked at whether the suspect had confessed voluntarily or as a result of a threat or promise. The Court first invoked the U.S. Constitution to support this voluntariness standard in the 1897 case of Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 18 S. Ct. 183, 42 L. Ed. 568.

In Bram, the Court applied the FIFTH AMENDMENT'S PRIVILEGE AGAINST SELF-INCRIMINATION to confessions in federal courts, observing that any amount of influence exerted to obtain a confession would render the confession involuntary and thus inadmissible. The Bram holding initially created a harsh standard of confession admissibility. Later decisions interpreting Bram lowered the standard by requiring that a confession be excluded from evidence only if the amount of influence that had been used to obtain it actually called into question the statement's reliability.

In 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue of coerced confessions for actions in state court, rather than federal court, in Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S. Ct. 461, 80 L. Ed. 682. Brown involved three African-American defendants who had confessed to the murder of a white man only after being beaten and tortured by state police. The Court, this time, invoked the Fourteenth Amendment's DUE PROCESS guarantee in holding the confessions to be inadmissible because the police had obtained them in a way that violated basic liberty and justice principles. The Court in Brown announced a due process analysis to be employed by state courts on a case-by-case basis to determine whether, given the totality of the circumstances, a suspect had confessed voluntarily. The analysis was to include an assessment of the suspect's character and status as well as of the methods used by the police.

Case-by-case determination of the kind required by Brown proved to be unwieldy for state courts because the method was so fact-specific. Appellate courts had difficulty setting effective precedents because case outcomes depended solely on unique factual circumstances. As a result, the police were left with little guidance as to thew way to interrogate suspects properly and lawfully.

By the mid-1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court once again began to alter its approach to determining the admissibility of confessions. Starting with Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 84 S. Ct. 1489, 12 L. Ed. 2d 653 (1964), the Court held that the Fifth Amendment privilege against SELF-INCRIMINATION, which previously had applied only to federal actions, now applied to state actions as well. Thus, the Court held, suspects in state court were entitled to the same standards governing confessions—initially set forth in the Bram opinion—as were suspects in federal court.

In MASSIAH V. UNITED STATES, 377 U.S. 201, 84 S. Ct. 1199, 12 L. Ed. 2d 246 (1964), the Court continued to move away from the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT due process analysis that it had employed in its previous decisions. In Massiah, the Court held that the SIXTH AMENDMENT grants criminal defendants the RIGHT TO COUNSEL during post-indictment interrogations, and when this right is violated, confessions obtained are inadmissible. In ESCOBEDO V. ILLINOIS, 378 U.S. 478, 84 S. Ct. 1758, 12 L. Ed. 2d 977 (1964), the Court expanded this protection to preindictment confessions, holding that the right to counsel attaches when a police investigation becomes accusatory.

Two years later, the Court handed down the landmark decision MIRANDA V. ARIZONA, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), finding that police custody is inherently coercive, and therefore that criminal suspects in police custody must be informed expressly of their constitutional rights before interrogation begins. A suspect's Miranda rights include the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning. Any statements made by the suspect may be used against him or her in a court of law. The Court held in Miranda that a suspect may waive any of these rights, but only if the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. But Miranda left these criteria essentially undefined, thus prompting a glut of litigation concerning the validity of Miranda waivers.

The Court attempted to clarify its position in North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369, 99 S. Ct. 1755, 60 L. Ed. 286 (1979). Willie Thomas Butler had spoken with the police after they had advised him of his Miranda rights, then later sought to have the court exclude his incriminating statements because he had declined to sign a waiver agreement. In ruling against Butler, the high court adopted the "totality of the circumstances" approach for determining whether a waiver of Miranda rights is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. Butler, the Court found, had implied a voluntary waiver through his words and actions, thus making an express written waiver unnecessary. Butler thus required courts to determine the voluntariness of a suspect's waiver case by case. Butler further instructed courts to invalidate seemingly voluntary waivers in instances of apparent coercion, deceit, or trickery on the part of police.

Another attempt at clarification came in Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412, 106 S. Ct. 1135, 89 L. Ed. 2d 410 (1986), in which the Court held that the suspect's confession had been voluntary and valid even though the police, after reciting Miranda rights, had failed to inform him that his attorney had been trying to contact him. The Court in Burbine found that although the police have a duty to convey Miranda rights, including the right to an attorney, there is no constitutional duty to inform a suspect when that suspect's attorney wants to confer. The Court further held that Miranda rights belong to the suspect, and therefore it was irrelevant that the police in Burbine had deceived the suspect's attorney by falsely stating that they would not interrogate the suspect. Burbine invoked a two-pronged test for courts to apply in determining waiver validity: (1) whether the suspect's choice to waive Miranda rights was free and uncoerced; and (2) whether the suspect fully understood the consequences of waiving those rights.

Nine months later, the Court refined Burbine's first prong in Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 107 S. Ct. 515, 93 L. Ed. 2d 473 (1986). Francis Barry Connelly, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, made unsolicited murder confessions to the police while he was in a psychotic state. He continued to talk even after the police read him the Miranda rights. In attempting to exclude the confession at trial, Connelly's attorney argued that Connelly had no control over his psychotic delusions, and that the confession therefore had been involuntary.

Finding no POLICE MISCONDUCT, the high court ruled against Connelly, stating that "Miranda protects defendants against government coercion leading them to surrender rights protected by the Fifth Amendment; it goes no further than that." Connelly suggests that the voluntariness of a waiver depends on the conduct of the police, not the mental state of the suspect. Yet the mental state of the suspect may still play a role in Burbine's second prong, which considers the suspect's awareness of Miranda rights and the consequences of waiving them.

Legal commentators have criticized Miranda and its subsequent line of decisions, stating that criminal suspects seldom truly understand the meaning or importance of the rights recited to them. Studies have indicated that the Miranda decision has had little effect on the numbers of confessions and requests for lawyers made by suspects in custody. What is more, critics of Miranda cite concerns that the police might fabricate waivers, as a suspect's waiver of Miranda rights need not be recorded or made to a neutral party. Proponents argue that Miranda protects criminal suspects and reduces needless litigation by providing the police with concrete guidelines for permissible interrogation.

Even though the idea behind Miranda rights is to protect suspects in custody from police coercion, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 held that coerced confessions nevertheless may be used in court if their use is harmless—in other words, if a jury would probably convict even without them (Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 111 S. Ct. 1246, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302). The police suspected that Oreste Fulminante had killed his 11-year-old stepdaughter, whose body was found in an Arizona desert two days after he had reported her missing. Before he was charged with the murder, Fulminante had received a prison sentence for an unrelated weapons-possession charge. While in prison on that charge, he confessed the murder to a fellow inmate, who actually was a paid federal informant. The informant had offered to protect Fulminante from other inmates in exchange for hearing the truth about the murder. Fulminante was subsequently indicted for the killing, and his confession was used at trial despite his objection. A jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. The U.S. Supreme Court applied the harmful error test and found that the jurors most likely would not have convicted Fulminante had they not heard his coerced confession, thus its use at trial was harmful. The Court ordered the case back for a new trial, this time without use of the confession.

Legal scholars have criticized the Fulminante decision for failing to follow decades of legal precedent holding that coerced confessions violate the due process rights of criminal suspects and that their use at trial necessitates automatic reversal, whether they are harmful or not. Fulminante, they argue, encourages the police to ignore the civil rights of suspects and to coerce confessions. Others argue that the decision is correct because it focuses on achieving an accurate determination of guilt or innocence regardless of whether constitutional rights are violated. Whatever its long-term effects, Fulminante will not be the final word in the progression of U.S. Supreme Court cases defining the law of confessions.

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