Supreme Court Review.—The Court's review of the question of admissibility of confessions or other incriminating statements is designed to prevent the foreclosure of the very question to be decided by it, the issue of voluntariness under the due process standard, the issue of the giving of the requisite warnings and the subsequent waiver, if there is one, under the Miranda rule. Recurring to Justice Frankfurter's description of the inquiry as a "three-phased process" in due process cases at least,377 it can be seen that the Court's self-imposed rules of restraint on review of lower-court factfinding greatly influenced the process. The finding of facts surrounding the issue of coercion—the length of detention, circumstances of interrogation, use of violence or of tricks and ruses, et cetera—is the proper function of the trial court which had the advantage of having the witnesses before it. "This means that all testimonial conflict is settled by the judgment of the state courts. Where they have made explicit findings of fact, those findings conclude us and form the basis of our review—with the one caveat, necessarily, that we are not to be bound by findings wholly lacking support in evidence."378
However, the conclusions of the lower courts as to how the accused reacted to the circumstances of his interrogation, and as to the legal significance of how he reacted, are subject to open review. "No more restricted scope of review would suffice adequately to protect federal constitutional rights. For the mental state of involuntariness upon which the due process question turns can never be affirmatively established other than circumstantially— that is, by inference; and it cannot be competent to the trier of fact to preclude our review simply be declining to draw inferences which the historical facts compel. Great weight, of course, is to be accorded to the inferences which are drawn by the state courts. In a dubious case, it is appropriate . . . that the state court's determination should control. But where, on the uncontested external happenings, coercive forces set in motion by state law enforcement officials are unmistakably in action; where these forces, under all the prevailing states of stress, are powerful enough to draw forth a confession; where, in fact, the confession does come forth and is claimed by the defendant to have been extorted from him; and where he has acted as a man would act who is subjected to such an extracting process—where this is all that appears in the record—a State judgment that the confession was voluntary cannot stand."379 Miranda, of course, does away with the judgments about the effect of lack of warnings, and the third phase, the legal determination of the interaction of the first two phases, is determined solely by two factual determinations: whether the warnings were given and if so whether there was a valid waiver. Presumably, supported determinations of these two facts by trial courts would preclude independent review by the Supreme Court. Yet, the Court has been clear that it may and will independently review the facts when the factfinding has such a substantial effect on constitutional rights.380
377 Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568, 603-06 (1961).
378 367 U.S. at 603. See Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 152-53 (1944); Lyons v. Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 602-03 (1944); Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 50-52 (1949); Gallegos v. Nebraska, 342 U.S. 55, 60-62 (1951); Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 180-82 (1953); Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U.S. 560, 561-62 (1958).
In Withrow v. Williams,381 the Court held that the rule of Stone v. Powell,382 precluding federal habeas corpus review of a state prisoner's claim that his conviction rests on evidence obtained through an unconstitutional search or seizure, does not extend to preclude federal habeas review of a state prisoner's claim that his conviction rests on statements obtained in violation of the safeguards mandated by Miranda.
379 Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568, 605 (1961). See Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 51 (1949); Malinski v. New York, 324 U.S. 401, 404, 417 (1945).
380 "In cases in which there is a claim of denial of rights under the Federal Constitution this Court is not bound by the conclusions of lower courts, but will re-examine the evidentiary basis on which those conclusions are founded." Niemotko v. Maryland, 340 U.S. 268, 271 (1951); Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 284 (1971), and cases cited therein.
381 507 U.S. 680 (1993).
382 428 U.S. 465 (1976). See discussion of Stone v. Powell under the Fourth Amendment, infra.
Procedure in the Trial Courts.—The Court has placed constitutional limitations upon the procedures followed by trial courts for determining the admissibility of confessions and other incriminating admissions. Three procedures were developed over time to deal with the question of admissibility when involuntariness was claimed. By the orthodox method, the trial judge heard all the evidence on voluntariness in a separate and preliminary hearing, and if he found the confession involuntary the jury never received it, while if he found it voluntary the jury received it with the right to consider its weight and credibility, which consideration included the circumstances of its making. By the New York method, the judge first reviewed the confession under a standard leading to its exclusion only if he found it not possible that "reasonable men could differ over the [factual] inferences to be drawn" from it; otherwise, the jury would receive the confession with instructions to first determine its voluntariness and to consider it if it were voluntary and to disregard it if it were not. By the Massachusetts method, the trial judge himself determined the voluntariness question and if he found the confession involuntary the jury never received it; if he found it to have been voluntarily made he permitted the jury to receive it with instructions that the jurors should make their own independent determination of voluntariness.383
The New York method was upheld against constitutional attack in Stein v. New York,384 but eleven years later a five-to-four decision in Jackson v. Denno,385 found it inadequate to protect the due process rights of defendants. The procedure did not, the Court held, ensure a "reliable determination on the issue of voluntariness" and did not sufficiently guarantee that convictions would not be grounded on involuntary confessions. Since there was only a general jury verdict of guilty, it was impossible to determine whether the jury had first focused on the issue of voluntariness and then either had found the confession voluntary and considered it on the question of guilt or had found it involuntary, disregarded it, and reached a conclusion of guilt on wholly independent evidence. It was doubtful that a jury could appreciate the values served by the exclusion of involuntary confessions and put out of mind the content of the confession no matter what was determined with regard to its voluntariness. The rule was reiterated in Sims v. Georgia,386 in which the Court voided a state practice permitting the judge to let the confession go to the jury for the ultimate decision on voluntariness, upon an initial determination merely that the prosecution had made out a prima facie case that the confession was voluntary. The Court has interposed no constitutional objection to utilization of either the orthodox or the Massachusetts method for determining admissibility.387 It has held that the prosecution bears the burden of establishing voluntariness by a preponderance of the evidence, rejecting a contention that it should be determined only upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt,388 or by clear and convincing evidence.389
383 Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, 410-23 (1964) (appendix to opinion of Justice Black concurring in part and dissenting in part).
384 346 U.S. 156, 170-79 (1953). Significant to the Court's conclusion on this matter was the further conclusion of the majority that coerced confessions were inadmissible solely because of their unreliability; if their trustworthiness could be established the utilization of an involuntary confession violated no constitutional prohibition. This conception was contrary to earlier cases and was subsequently repudiated. See Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, 383-87 (1964).
385 378 U.S. 368 (1964). On the sufficiency of state court determinations, see Swenson v. Stidham, 409 U.S. 224 (1972); La Vallee v. Della Rose, 410 U.S. 690 (1973).
Last modified: June 9, 2014