The United States Supreme Court was asked to determine whether it was proper for a jury to decide, along with guilt or innocence, whether a confession to a crime was voluntary. Reversing the court below with an opinion authored by Justice Byron White, the Court held that it was impermissible to leave the voluntariness of a confession to be determined in the first instance by a jury and that due process is satisfied by the so called ‘‘orthodox rule,’’ which provides that the trial judge solely determines the voluntariness of the confession. The Court also determined that a jury need not decide on the voluntariness of a confession once a trial judge had decided that the confession was, in fact, voluntary and thus admissible.
The Court found it doubtful that a jury could fully appreciate the values served by the exclusion of involuntary confessions and to ignore the content of a confession no matter what was determined with regard to its voluntariness. Because there was only a general verdict of guilt, it was impossible to determine whether the jury had 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 guilty verdict on independent evidence.
The Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution prohibit the use of confessions obtained through unlawful coercion. Although it is often argued that the ‘‘ends will justify the means,’’ the foundation of life and liberty could be endangered if undue coercion is used to convict those thought to be criminals even more so from the actual criminals themselves.
ROBERT DON GIFFORD