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C, Coerced Confessions

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 07 June 2023

Coerced Confessions

by criminal suspects are generally regarded as inadmissible in court proceedings because of the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination included in the *Fifth Amendment. The adoption of this protection in the United States, first in the form of an evidentiary rule and eventually in a constitutional amendment, reflected the founding fathers’ abhorrence of the use of torture. Through most of the nation’s history, Supreme Court review of criminal convictions alleged to have been obtained by coerced confessions drew on *Fourteenth Amendment due process protections (see due process, procedural). When the Supreme Court incorporated the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and applied this provision to the states in 1964 (*Malloy v. Hogan), coerced confession claims were reviewed against that provision of the *Bill of Rights (see incorporation doctrine).

Prior to the Malloy decision and other cases in the Warren Court’s “due process revolution,” the Court relied on the voluntariness test in reviewing claims of coerced confessions. One of the earliest cases of this genre was *Brown v. Mississippi (1936), where the Court presumed a confession involuntary because of the brutal treatment accorded the accused. In this case a law (p. 188) enforcement officer went to Brown’s home and led him to the house of a murder victim. There Brown was hanged from a tree, though not until dead, and later tied to a tree and whipped severely. Several days later, Brown was arrested and beaten again until he eventually confessed to the murder in question. Concluding that “the rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand,” the Court ruled that physically coerced confessions violated that Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (pp. 285–286).

Since that time the Court has moved beyond a concern with physical coercion and concluded that prolonged interrogation (Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 1944), threats (Lynumm v. Illinois, 1963), and deceit (Spano v. New York, 1959) also constitute coercion that may invalidate criminal confessions. The Court has also argued that delays in suspect appearances before judicial officers might also contribute to coerced confessions (McNabb v. United States, 1943; *Mallory v. United States, 1957), although the so-called McNabb-Mallory rule was only applied to federal courts and was later over-shadowed by the Court’s decision in *Miranda v. Arizona (1966).

In an effort to supplement the voluntariness test, the Court has advanced other means for insuring that defendant confessions are the result of “free and unconstrained choice” (Culombe v. Connecticut, 1961, p. 602). The most prominent is the Court’s emphasis on right to *counsel. In a series of decisions in the 1960s the Supreme Court expressed dissatisfaction with the voluntariness test and its lingering ambiguity and replaced that standard with requirements that drew on Fifth and *Sixth Amendment protections. In *Massiah v. U.S. (1964), for example, the Court argued that the right to counsel attaches once a person is formally charged or adversary proceedings initiated, while in *Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), the Court concluded that that right applies even before judicial or adversarial processes have started. In the aforementioned Miranda decision (1966), the Court not only ruled that the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination applies to police interrogation but also specified that defendants were entitled to counsel in those situations.

Contrasting objectives underlie these Supreme Court decisions. The justices have ruled that coerced confessions can be excluded because they constitute unreliable evidence, restrain freedom of choice, or deter undesirable police conduct. These objectives are not all realized in a given case. For example, in Ashcraft v. Tennessee (1944), the six-justice majority apparently did not reject the confession because it was unreliable—evidence suggested that the defendant was in fact responsible for the offense—but because it thought that thirty-six hours of continuous interrogation constituted unacceptable police conduct. Similarly, in Miranda, the Court explicitly reviewed the history of police misconduct in criminal interrogation and made no secret of its intention to advance a deterrent in the warnings requirement.

The tension that results from competing objectives is illustrated in *Arizona v. Fulminante (1991). A five-justice majority concluded that coerced confessions can be regarded as “harmless error” and may not automatically invalidate a criminal conviction. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Willian H. *Rehnquist argued that there is a difference between due process violations that are structurally defective and those that simply reflect trial error. Other evidence obtained independently of the confession can be used to sustain a conviction, in which case the coerced confession is judged harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court’s decision in Fulminante overturned a 1967 decision, Chapman v. California, and constitutes something of a departure from the Court’s longstanding reluctance to recognize the constitutional validity of coerced confessions.

See also self-incrimination.

Susette M. Talarico