A, Arizona v. Fulminante,
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall
Arizona v. Fulminante,
499 U.S. 279 (1991), argued 10 Oct. 1990, decided 26 Mar. 1991 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, White in dissent. For many decades, the “rule of automatic reversal” governed *coerced confession cases. Under this rule, if a coerced or “involuntary” confession had been erroneously admitted at the trial, the conviction had to be reversed regardless of how much untainted evidence of guilt remained to support the conviction. In Fulminante, however, the Court held that an erroneously admitted coerced confession was subject to “harmless-error” analysis.
Noting that confessions obtained in violation of *Massiah v. United States (1964) and *Miranda v. Arizona (1966) had already been subject to “harmless-error” analysis, the Court emphasized that “the evidentiary impact” of a coerced confession and its effect upon the trial was indistinguishable from that of a confession inadmissible for any other reason. The erroneous admission of a coerced confession may often be “devastating” to a defendant, but that may be said of any inadmissible confession. There is nothing inherent in a confession obtained in violation of Massiah or Miranda that gives it a lesser impact on a jury than a coerced confession.
The dissenters argued that because a coerced confession is a constitutional error of great magnitude it should be treated differently than confessions inadmissible on other grounds. They emphasized that the methods used to extract coerced confessions offend a fundamental principle: “ours is an accusatorial and not an inquisitorial system” (p. 1256).