Spano v. New York, 360 U.S. 315 (1959)

On the evening of February 3, 1957, Vincent Joseph Spano, indicted for first-degree murder, surrendered to the police. Immediately after Spano’s accompanying counsel had departed, police initiated an intensive interrogation that involved multiple officials and lasted throughout the night and into the following morning. As advised by counsel, Spano initially refused to respond and was denied repeated requests to contact his attorney. To facilitate a confession, investigators sought the assistance of a police trainee, an acquaintance of Spano’s, who falsely solicited Spano’s sympathy. In the predawn hours, Spano capitulated, providing written and oral statements of guilt along with the location of his discarded weapon. Spano was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed.

On certiorari, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren ruled the confession involuntary under the totality of the circumstances. Although noting multiple factors, including Spano’s foreign-born status and limited education, Warren’s opinion gave particular emphasis to the relentless, overnight questioning that continued in the absence of requested counsel. This prolonged, postindictment questioning, in combination with the investigators’ ruse, was sufficient to overcome the defendant’s will, thereby rendering his statements impermissible self-incrimination in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. In addition to illustrating the application of the ‘‘totality of the circumstances’’ test in determining the voluntariness of confessions, this case also reveals the Court’s burgeoning recognition of the importance of counsel’s presence during custodial interrogation—a development that would ultimately culminate in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

LISA K. PARSHALL

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)

See also Coerced Confessions/Police Interrogations; Due Process; Miranda Warning

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