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Confessions

The Role Of Confessions, The Voluntariness Approach, The Right To Counsel Approach, The Self-incrimination Approach—historical Background

Confessions have played an ambiguous and paradoxical role in Anglo-American cultural and legal history. In many religious traditions, a confession begins the process of expiation and forgiveness. Yet in the secular, legal sphere, it often lays the foundation for blame and punishment.

Moreover, there is a contradiction embedded within this contradiction. Because confessions appear to create unmediated access to the defendant's knowledge, thought processes, and beliefs, they seem to provide uniquely powerful evidence of both culpability and contrition. Yet because the access is in fact always mediated, confessions can also be uniquely dangerous and misleading. The upshot has been heavy reliance on confessions coupled with extensive regulation of their use.

In the United States, three separate constitutional provisions limit the legal use of confessions.

  1. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee due process of law. This protection has been interpreted to prohibit the extraction of "involuntary" confessions.
  2. The Sixth Amendment (made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) guarantees the assistance of counsel in all criminal prosecutions. The Supreme Court has interpreted this provision to prohibit introduction of post-charge statements made by a defendant in the absence of a lawyer.
  3. Finally, the Fifth Amendment's self-incrimination clause (also made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) provides that "No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." This language has been interpreted to bar from criminal prosecutions all compelled statements made by a criminal defendant and any evidence derived from such statements.

LOUIS MICHAEL SEIDMAN

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law