Confession

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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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

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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...

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