State Confession Cases
State Confession Cases.—In its first encounter with a confession case arising from a state court, the Supreme Court set aside a conviction based solely on confessions of the defendants which had been extorted from them through repeated whippings with ropes and studded belts.282 For some thirty years thereafter the Court attempted through a consideration of the "totality of the circumstances" surrounding interrogation to determine whether a confession was "voluntary" and admissible or "coerced" and inadmissible. During this time, the Court was balancing, in Justice Frankfurter's explication, a view that police questioning of suspects was indispensable in solving many crimes, on the one hand, with the conviction that the interrogation process is not to be used to overreach persons who stand helpless before it.283 "The ultimate test remains that which has been the only clearly established test in Anglo-American courts for two hundred years: the test of voluntariness. Is the confession the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice by its maker? If it is, if he has willed to confess, it may be used against him. If it is not, if his will has been overborne and his capacity for self-determination critically impaired, the use of his confession offends due process."284 Obviously, a court seeking to determine whether the making of a confession was voluntary operated under a severe handicap, inasmuch as the interrogation process was in secret with only police and the suspect witness to it, and inasmuch as the concept of voluntariness referred to the defendant's mental condition.285 Despite, then, a bountiful number of cases, binding precedents were few.
282 Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936). "[T]he question of the right of the State to withdraw the privilege against self-incrimination is not here involved. The compulsion to which the quoted statements refer is that of the processes of justice by which the accused may be called as a witness and required to testify. Compulsion by torture to extort a confession is a different matter… It would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process." Id. at 285, 286.
284 367 U.S. at 602.
285 "The inquiry whether, in a particular case, a confession was voluntarily or involuntarily made involves, at the least, a three-phased process. First, there is the business of finding the crude historical facts, the external 'phenomenological' occurrences and events surrounding the confession. Second, because the concept of 'voluntariness' is one which concerns a mental state, there is the imaginative recreation, largely inferential, of internal, 'psychological' fact. Third, there is the application to this psychological fact of standards for judgment informed by the larger legal conceptions ordinarily characterized as rules of law but which, also, comprehend both induction from, and anticipation of, factual circumstances." 367 U.S. at 603. See Developments in the Law—Confessions, 79 HARV. L. REV. 935, 973-82 (1966).
On the one hand, many of the early cases disclosed rather clear instances of coercion of a nature that the Court could little doubt produced involuntary confessions. Not only physical torture,286 but other overtly coercive tactics as well have been condemned. Chambers v. Florida287 held that five days of prolonged questioning following arrests without warrants and incommunicado detention made the subsequent confessions involuntary. Ashcraft v. Tennessee288 held inadmissible a confession obtained near the end of a 36-hour period of practically continuous questioning, under powerful electric lights, by relays of officers, experienced investigators, and highly trained lawyers. Similarly, Ward v. Texas,289 voided a conviction based on a confession obtained from a suspect who had been arrested illegally in one county and brought some 100 miles away to a county where questioning began, and who had then been questioned continuously over the course of three days while being driven from county to county and being told falsely of a danger of lynching. "Since Chambers v. State of Florida, . . . this Court has recognized that coercion can be mental as well as physical and that the blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition. A number of cases have demonstrated, if demonstrations were needed, that the efficiency of the rack and thumbscrew can be matched, given the proper subject, by more sophisticated modes of 'persuasion.' A prolonged interrogation of the accused who is ignorant of his rights and who has been cut off from the moral support of friends and relatives is not infrequently an effective technique of terror."290
286 Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936).
287 309 U.S. 227 (1940).
288 322 U.S. 143 (1944). Dissenting, Justices Jackson, Frankfurter, and Roberts protested that "interrogation per se is not, while violence per se is, an outlaw." A confession made after interrogation was not truly "voluntary" because all questioning is "inherently coercive," because it puts pressure upon a suspect to talk. Thus, in evaluating a confession made after interrogation, the Court must, they insisted, determine whether the suspect was in possession of his own will and self-control and not look alone to the length or intensity of the interrogation. They accused the majority of "read[ing] an indiscriminating hostility to mere interrogation into the Constitution" and preparing to bar all confessions made after questioning. Id. at 156. A possible result of the dissent was the decision in Lyons v. Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596 (1944), which stressed deference to state-court factfinding in assessing the voluntariness of confessions.
While the Court would not hold that prolonged questioning by itself made a resultant confession involuntary,291 it did increasingly find coercion present even in intermittent questioning over a period of days of incommunicado detention.292 In Stein v. New York,293 however, the Court affirmed convictions of experienced criminals who had confessed after twelve hours of intermittent questioning over a period of thirty-two hours of incommunicado detention. While the questioning was less intensive than in the prior cases, Justice Jackson for the majority stressed that the correct approach was to balance "the circumstances of pressure against the power of resistance of the person confessing. What would be overpowering to the weak of will or mind might be utterly ineffective against an experienced criminal."294 But by the time Haynes v. Washington295 was decided, holding inadmissible a confession made by an experienced criminal because of the "unfair and inherently coercive context" in which the statement was made, it was clear that the Court was adhering to a rule which found coercion in the fact of prolonged interrogation without regard to the individual characteristics of the suspect.296 However, the age and intelligence of suspects have been repeatedly cited by the Court in appropriate cases as demonstrating the particular susceptibility of the suspects to even mild coercion.297 But a suspect's mental state alone—even insanity—is insufficient to establish involuntariness absent some coercive police activity.298
291 Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219 (1941).
292 Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49 (1949) (Suspect held incommunicado without arraignment for seven days without being advised of his rights. He was held in solitary confinement in a cell with no place to sleep but the floor and questioned each day except Sunday by relays of police officers for periods ranging in duration from three to nine-and-one-half hours); Turner v. Pennsylvania, 338 U.S. 62 (1949) (suspect held on suspicion for five days without arraignment and without being advised of his rights. He was questioned by relays of officers for periods briefer than in Watts during both days and nights); Harris v. South Carolina, 338 U.S. 68 (1949) (Suspect in murder case arrested in Tennessee on theft warrant, taken to South Carolina, and held incommunicado. He was questioned for three days for periods as long as 12 hours, not advised of his rights, not told of the murder charge, and denied access to friends and family while being told his mother might be arrested for theft). Justice Jackson dissented in the latter two cases, willing to hold that a confession obtained under lengthy and intensive interrogation should be admitted short of a showing of violence or threats of it and especially if the truthfulness of the confession may be corroborated by independent means. 338 U.S. at 57.
293 346 U.S. 156 (1953).
294 346 U.S. at 185.
295 373 U.S. 503 (1963) (confession obtained some 16 hours after arrest but interrogation over this period consumed little more than two hours; he was refused in his requests to call his wife and told that his cooperation was necessary before he could communicate with his family).
296 373 U.S. at 514. See also Spano v. New York, 360 U.S. 315 (1959). (After eight hours of almost continuous questioning, suspect was induced to confess by rookie policeman who was a childhood friend and who played on suspect's sympathies by falsely stating that his job as a policeman and the welfare of his family was at stake); Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534 (1961) (suspect resisted questioning for six hours but yielded when officers threatened to bring his invalid wife to headquarters). More recent cases include Davis v. North Carolina, 384 U.S. 737 (1966) (escaped convict held incommunicado 16 days but periods of interrogation each day were about an hour each); Greenwald v. Wisconsin, 390 U.S. 519 (1968); Darwin v. Connecticut, 391 U.S. 346 (1968).
297 Gallegos v. Colorado, 370 U.S. 49 (1962); Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199 (1960); Fikes v. Alabama, 352 U.S. 191 (1957); Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U.S. 560 (1958); Reck v. Pate, 367 U.S. 433 (1961); Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568 (1961). The suspect in Spano v. New York, 360 U.S. 315 (1959), was a 25-year-old foreigner with a history of emotional instability. The fact that the suspect was a woman was apparently significant in Lynumn v. Illinois, 372 U.S. 528 (1963), in which officers threatened to have her children taken from her and to have her taken off the welfare relief rolls.
298 Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986).
Where, however, interrogation was not so prolonged that the Court would deem it "inherently coercive," the "totality of the circumstances" was looked to in determining admissibility. Although in some of the cases a single factor may well be thought to stand out as indicating the involuntariness of the confession,299 generally the recitation of factors, including not only the age and intelligence of the suspect but also such things as the illegality of the arrest, the incommunicado detention, the denial of requested counsel, the denial of access to friends, the employment of trickery, and other things, seemed not to rank any factor above the others.300 Of course, confessions may be induced through the exploitation of some illegal action, such as an illegal arrest301 or an unlawful search and seizure,302 and when that occurs the confession is inadmissible. Where police obtain a subsequent confession after obtaining one that is inadmissible as involuntary, the Court will not assume that the subsequent confession was similarly involuntary, but will independently evaluate whether the coercive actions which produced the first continued to produce the later confession.303
299 E.g., Leyra v. Denno, 347 U.S. 556 (1954) (confession obtained by psychiatrist trained in hypnosis from a physically and emotionally exhausted suspect who had already been subjected to three days of interrogation); Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293 (1963) (suspect was administered drug with properties of "truth serum" to relieve withdrawal pains of narcotics addiction, although police probably were not aware of drug's side effects).
301 Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963).
302 Fahy v. Connecticut, 375 U.S. 85 (1963).
Last modified: September 25, 2012