Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991)

Arizona v. Fulminante considered whether a state court properly found a defendant’s confession was coerced in violation of the Fifth Amendment and whether admission of a coerced confession is properly evaluated using harmless error analysis.

Although the defendant was suspected of murdering his eleven-year-old stepdaughter, the state had insufficient evidence to file charges against him. While he was incarcerated in New Jersey for an unrelated felony, he was befriended by another inmate, a former officer, masquerading as an organized crime figure. The officer-turned-informant told the defendant that he knew that the defendant was ‘‘starting to get some tough treatment’’ from other inmates because of a rumor that he murdered a child. He offered to protect the defendant from the other inmates, but told him ‘‘You have to tell me about it, . . . for me to give you any help’’ (499 U.S. at 283). At that point, the defendant admitted killing and sexually assaulting the child and the confession was used to convict him for the murder.

The Court held that the state court accurately applied the ‘‘totality of the circumstances’’ test to determine the voluntariness of the confession (Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 1973). Because the confession was tendered in the belief that the defendant’s life was in jeopardy, the lower court appropriately found that it was ‘‘a true coerced confession in every way’’ (778 P.2d 602, 627, 1988).

Over the strong dissent of four justices, the majority held that harmless error analysis could be applied to admission of a coerced confession. Under this test, the state must be able to show that introduction of the confession was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt (Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24, 1967). Unable to do so in this case, the Court affirmed the state court’s decision to grant the defendant a new trial. By allowing the application of harmless error analysis, the Court effectively overruled the blanket exclusion of coerced confessions.

EMILY FROIMSON

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24 (1967) 
  • Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973) 

See also Coerced Confessions/Police Interrogations; Due Process

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