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A statement by which an individual acknowledges his or her guilt in the commission of a crime.

One vital function of the U.S. judicial system is to determine the guilt or innocence of suspects who have been accused of crimes. Confessions can play a key role in making this determination. Courts in the U.S. have recognized the fallibility of inaccurate or involuntary confessions—such as those that have been obtained as the result of threats or trickery—and have developed a body of law to prevent untrustworthy confessions from jeopardizing a criminal defendant's Civil Rights.

Confessions were always allowed as evidence in early English common-law trials, even when torture was used to elicit them. Not until the mid–eighteenth century did judges in England start to admit only confessions that they deemed trustworthy. To determine the trustworthiness of a confession, judges considered the circumstances surrounding it, whether a threat or promise coerced the suspect to confess, and whether the suspect confessed voluntarily.

The U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the issue of confessions in the 1884 case of Hopt v. Utah, 110 U.S. 574, 4 S. Ct. 202, 28 L. Ed. 262. Following the English common-law standard, the Court looked at whether the suspect had confessed voluntarily or as a result of a threat or promise. The Court first invoked the U.S. Constitution to support this voluntariness standard in the 1897 case of Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 18 S. Ct. 183, 42 L. Ed. 568.

In Bram, the Court applied the fifth amendment's privilege against self-incrimination to confessions in federal courts, observing that any amount of influence exerted to obtain a confession would render the confession involuntary and thus inadmissible. The Bram holding initially created a harsh standard of confession admissibility. Later decisions interpreting Bram lowered the standard by requiring that a confession be excluded from evidence only if the amount of influence that had been used to obtain it actually called into question the statement's reliability.

In 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue of coerced confessions for actions in state court, rather than federal court, in Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S. Ct. 461, 80 L. Ed. 682. Brown involved three African-American defendants who had confessed to the murder of a white man only after being beaten and tortured by state police. The Court, this time, invoked the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantee in holding the confessions to be inadmissible because the police had obtained them in a way that violated basic liberty and justice principles. The Court in Brown announced a due process analysis to be employed by state courts on a case-by-case basis to determine whether, given the totality of the circumstances, a suspect had confessed voluntarily. The analysis was to include an assessment of the suspect's character and status as well as of the methods used by the police.

Case-by-case determination of the kind required by Brown proved to be unwieldy for state courts because the method was so fact-specific. Appellate courts had difficulty setting effective precedents because case outcomes depended solely on unique factual circumstances. As a result, the police were left with little guidance as to thew way to interrogate suspects properly and lawfully.

By the mid-1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court once again began to alter its approach to determining the admissibility of confessions. Starting with Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 84 S. Ct. 1489, 12 L. Ed. 2d 653 (1964), the Court held that the Fifth Amendment privilege against Self-Incrimination, which previously had applied only to federal actions, now applied to state actions as well. Thus, the Court held, suspects in state court were entitled to the same standards governing confessions—initially set forth in the Bram opinion—as were suspects in federal court.

In Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201, 84 S. Ct. 1199, 12 L. Ed. 2d 246 (1964), the Court continued to move away from the Fourteenth Amendment due process analysis that it had employed in its previous decisions. In Massiah, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment grants criminal defendants the Right to Counsel during post-indictment interrogations, and when this right is violated, confessions obtained are inadmissible. In escobedo v. illinois, 378 U.S. 478, 84 S. Ct. 1758, 12 L. Ed. 2d 977 (1964), the Court expanded this protection to preindictment confessions, holding that the right to counsel attaches when a police investigation becomes accusatory.

Two years later, the Court handed down the landmark decision Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), finding that police custody is inherently coercive, and therefore that criminal suspects in police custody must be informed expressly of their constitutional rights before interrogation begins. A suspect's Miranda rights include the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during questioning. Any statements made by the suspect may be used against him or her in a court of law. The Court held in Miranda that a suspect may waive any of these rights, but only if the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. But Miranda left these criteria essentially undefined, thus prompting a glut of litigation concerning the validity of Miranda waivers.

The Court attempted to clarify its position in North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369, 99 S. Ct. 1755, 60 L. Ed. 286 (1979). Willie Thomas Butler had spoken with the police after they had advised him of his Miranda rights, then later sought to have the court exclude his incriminating statements because he had declined to sign a waiver agreement. In ruling against Butler, the high court adopted the "totality of the circumstances" approach for determining whether a waiver of Miranda rights is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. Butler, the Court found, had implied a voluntary waiver through his words and actions, thus making an express written waiver unnecessary. Butler thus required courts to determine the voluntariness of a suspect's waiver case by case. Butler further instructed courts to invalidate seemingly voluntary waivers in instances of apparent coercion, deceit, or trickery on the part of police.

Another attempt at clarification came in Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412, 106 S. Ct. 1135, 89 L. Ed. 2d 410 (1986), in which the Court held that the suspect's confession had been voluntary and valid even though the police, after reciting Miranda rights, had failed to inform him that his attorney had been trying to contact him. The Court in Burbine found that although the police have a duty to convey Miranda rights, including the right to an attorney, there is no constitutional duty to inform a suspect when that suspect's attorney wants to confer. The Court further held that Miranda rights belong to the suspect, and therefore it was irrelevant that the police in Burbine had deceived the suspect's attorney by falsely stating that they would not interrogate the suspect. Burbine invoked a two-pronged test for courts to apply in determining waiver validity: (1) whether the suspect's choice to waive Miranda rights was free and uncoerced; and (2) whether the suspect fully understood the consequences of waiving those rights.

Nine months later, the Court refined Burbine's first prong in Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 107 S. Ct. 515, 93 L. Ed. 2d 473 (1986). Francis Barry Connelly, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, made unsolicited murder confessions to the police while he was in a psychotic state. He continued to talk even after the police read him the Miranda rights. In attempting to exclude the confession at trial, Connelly's attorney argued that Connelly had no control over his psychotic delusions, and that the confession therefore had been involuntary.

Finding no police misconduct, the high court ruled against Connelly, stating that "Miranda protects defendants against government coercion leading them to surrender rights protected by the Fifth Amendment; it goes no further than that." Connelly suggests that the voluntariness of a waiver depends on the conduct of the police, not the mental state of the suspect. Yet the mental state of the suspect may still play a role in Burbine's second prong, which considers the suspect's awareness of Miranda rights and the consequences of waiving them.

Legal commentators have criticized Miranda and its subsequent line of decisions, stating that criminal suspects seldom truly understand the meaning or importance of the rights recited to them. Studies have indicated that the Miranda decision has had little effect on the numbers of confessions and requests for lawyers made by suspects in custody. What is more, critics of Miranda cite concerns that the police might fabricate waivers, as a suspect's waiver of Miranda rights need not be recorded or made to a neutral party. Proponents argue that Miranda protects criminal suspects and reduces needless litigation by providing the police with concrete guidelines for permissible interrogation.Even though the idea behind Miranda rights is to protect suspects in custody from police coercion, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 held that coerced confessions nevertheless may be used in court if their use is harmless—in other words, if a jury would probably convict even without them (Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 111 S. Ct. 1246, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302). The police suspected that Oreste Fulminante had killed his 11-year-old stepdaughter, whose body was found in an Arizona desert two days after he had reported her missing. Before he was charged with the murder, Fulminante had received a prison sentence for an unrelated weapons-possession charge. While in prison on that charge, he confessed the murder to a fellow inmate, who actually was a paid federal informant. The informant had offered to protect Fulminante from other inmates in exchange for hearing the truth about the murder. Fulminante was subsequently indicted for the killing, and his confession was used at trial despite his objection. A jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. The U.S. Supreme Court applied the harmful error test and found that the jurors most likely would not have convicted Fulminante had they not heard his coerced confession, thus its use at trial was harmful. The Court ordered the case back for a new trial, this time without use of the confession.

Legal scholars have criticized the Fulminante decision for failing to follow decades of legal precedent holding that coerced confessions violate the due process rights of criminal suspects and that their use at trial necessitates automatic reversal, whether they are harmful or not. Fulminante, they argue, encourages the police to ignore the civil rights of suspects and to coerce confessions. Others argue that the decision is correct because it focuses on achieving an accurate determination of guilt or innocence regardless of whether constitutional rights are violated. Whatever its long-term effects, Fulminante will not be the final word in the progression of U.S. Supreme Court cases defining the law of confessions.

Recent Developments

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit fueled long-standing speculation that Miranda would be overruled, when it held that the admissibility of confessions in federal court is governed not by Miranda, but by a federal statute enacted two years after that decision. The statute, 18 U.S.C.A. Section 3501, provides that a confession is admissible if voluntarily given. Congress enacted the statute in order to overturn Miranda, the Fourth Circuit said, and Congress had the authority to do so pursuant to its authority to overrule judicially created rules of evidence that are not mandated by the U.S. Constitution. United States. v. Dickerson, 166 F. 3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999).

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice william rehnquist, the Court said that, whether or not it agreed with Miranda, the principles of Stare Decisis weigh heavily against overruling it now. While the Court has overruled its precedents when subsequent cases have undermined their doctrinal underpinnings, that has not happened to the Miranda decision, which the Court said "has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture." Although the Court acknowledged that a few guilty defendants might go free as the result of the application of the Miranda rule, "experience suggests that the totality-of-the-circumstances test which Section 3501 seeks to revive is more difficult than Miranda for law enforcement officers to conform to and for courts to apply in a consistent manner." Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 147 L. Ed. 2d 405 (2000).

In another decision, the Court actually increased defendants' constitutional rights when it ruled that the protections provided by its decision in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S. Ct. 1620, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476 (1968) (which held that the introduction of a non-testifying codefendant's confession incriminating both himself and the other defendant in a joint trial violated the other defendant's Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine witnesses) were applicable to a codefendant's confession that substituted blanks and the word deleted in place of the defendant's proper name. The Court said that redactions that simply replace the defendant's name with an obvious substitute, such as deleted, a blank space, a symbol, or other similarly obvious indications of alteration, result in statements that so closely resemble the unredacted statements in Bruton that the law must require the same result. The Court believed that juries will often react similarly to unredacted confessions and to poorly redacted confessions, as jurors often realize that a poorly redacted confession refers specifically to the defendant, even when the statement does not expressly link the defendant to the deleted name. Additionally, the Court stressed that by encouraging the jury to speculate about the removed name, the redaction might overemphasize the importance of the confession's accusation once the jurors figure out the redacted reference. Gray v. Maryland, 523 U.S. 185, 118 S. Ct. 1151, 140 L. Ed. 2d 294 (1998)

In Martinez v. City of Oxnard, 270 F. 3d 852 (9th Cir. 2001), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that violating a defendant's rights against coerced confessions can give rise to a civil rights action against the police officer who attempted to coerce the confession. Martinez stemmed from a 45-minute emergency-room interrogation of a narcotics suspect who had been shot five times by a police officer while being subdued during the arrest. The suspect, who was rendered blind in one eye and paralyzed below the legs by the gunshot wounds, sued the officer who had conducted the interrogation. The officer interposed a defense of qualified Immunity, claiming that he could not be sued for injuries suffered by the defendant while the officer was simply doing his job.

The district court rejected the officer's defense and granted Summary Judgment to the narcotics suspect on his civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C.A § 1983. In affirming the district court's decision, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a police officer may raise the defense of qualified immunity only when he or she could have reasonably believed that his or her conduct was lawful under settled law. In this case, the record revealed that the officer had doggedly tried to exact a confession from the suspect without first reading him the Miranda warnings, and that he then had proceeded to ignore the suspect's repeated requests for the officer to cease the interrogation until he was finished receiving medical treatment for his life-threatening injuries. No reasonable officer, the court concluded, could have believed that interrogating the suspect under those "extreme circumstances" comported with the Fifth Amendment's prohibitions against coerced confessions, and thus the officer was not entitled to assert qualified immunity as a defense. Accordingly, the district court's grant of summary judgment against the officer was affirmed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the officer's petition for certiorari.

Further readings

Chertoff, Michael. 1995. "Chopping Miranda Down to Size." Michigan Law Review 93.

Green, Jana. 1992. "Arizona v. Fulminante: The Harmful Extension of the Harmless Error Doctrine." Oklahoma City University Law Review 17.

Hourihan, Paul. 1995. "Earl Washington's Confession: Mental Retardation and the Law of Confessions." Virginia Law Review 81.

LaFave, Wayne R., and Fred L. Israel. 2001. Criminal Procedure. 6th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

Stack, W. Brian. 1994. "Criminal Procedure—Confessions: Waiver of Privilege against Self-Incrimination Held Invalid Due to Police Failure to Inform Suspect of Attorney's Attempt to Contact Him—State v. Reed." Seton Hall Law Review 25.


Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure; Custodial Interrogation.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. the statement of one charged with a crime that he/she committed the crime. Such an admission is generally put in writing (by the confessor, law enforcement officers or their stenographer) and then read and signed by the defendant. If the defendant cannot read English, he/she has the right to have his/her confession read aloud or translated. It can be used against the defendant in trial (and his/her codefendants) if it is truly voluntary. (See: confess, Miranda warning, self-incrimination, Bill of Rights)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

CONFESSION, crim. law, evidence. The voluntary declaration made by a person who has committed a crime or misdemeanor, to another, of the agency or participation which he had in the same.
     2. When made without bias or improper influence, confessions are admissible in evidence, as the highest and most satisfactory proof: because it is fairly presumed that no man would make such a confession against himself, if the facts confessed were not true but they are excluded, if liable to the of having been unfairly obtained.
     3. Confessions should be received with great caution, as they are liable to many objections. There is danger of error from the misapprehension of witnesses, the misuse of words, the failure of a party to express his own meaning, the prisoner being oppressed by his unfortunate situation, and influenced by hope, fear, and sometimes a worse motive, to male an untrue confession. See the case of the two Boorns in Greenl. Ev. Sec. 214, note 1; North American Review, vol. 10, p. 418; 6 Carr. & P. 451; Joy on Confess. s. 14, p. 100; and see 1 Chit. Cr. Law, 85.
     4. A confession must be made voluntarily, by the party himself, to another person. 1. It must be voluntary. A confession, forced from the mind by the flattery of hope, or the torture of fear, comes in so questionable a shape, when it is to be considered as evidence of guilt, that Lo credit ought to be given to it. 1 Leach, 263. This is the principle, but what amounts to a promise or a threat, is not so easily defined. Vide 2 East, P. C. 659; 2 Russ. on Cr. 644 4 Carr. & Payne, 387; S. C. 19 Eng. Com. L. Rep. 434; 1 Southard, R. 231 1 Wend. R. 625; 6 Wend. R. 268 5 Halst. R. 163 Mina's Trial, 10; 5 Rogers' Rec. 177 2 Overton, R. 86 1 Hayw. (N. C.) R, 482; 1 Carr. & Marsh. 584. But it must be observed that a confession will be considered as voluntarily made, although it was made after a promise of favor or threat of punishment, by a person not in authority, over the prisoner. If, however, a person having such authority over him be present at the time, and he express no dissent, evidence of such confession cannot be given. 8 Car. & Payne, 733.
     5. - 2. The confession must be made by the party to be affected by it. It is evidence only against him. In case of a conspiracy, the acts of one conspirator are the acts of all, while active in the progress of the conspiracy, but after it is over, the confession of one as to the part he and others took in the crime, is not evidence against any but himself. Phil. Ev. 76, 77; 2 Russ. on Cr. 653.
     6. - 3. The confession must be to another person. It may be made to a private individual, or under examination before a magistrate. The whole of the confession must be taken, together with whatever conversation took place at the time of the confession. Roscoe's Ev. N. P. 36; 1 Dall. R. 240 Id. 392; 3 Halst. 27 5 2 Penna. R. 27; 1 Rogers' Rec. 66; 3 Wheeler's C. C. 533; 2 Bailey's R. 569; 5 Rand. R. 701.
     7. Confession, in another sense, is where a prisoner being arraigned for an offence, confesses or admits the crime with which he is charged, whereupon the plea of guilty is entered. Com Dig. Indictment, K; Id. Justices, W 3; Arch. Cr. Pl. 1 2 1; Harr. Dig. b. t.; 20 Am. Jur. 68; Joy on Confession.
     8. Confessions are classed into judicial and extra judicial. Judicial confessions are those made before a magistrate, or in court, in the due course of legal proceedings; when made freely by the party, and with a full and perfect knowledge of their nature and consequences, they are sufficient to found a conviction. These confessions are such as are authorized by a statute, as to take a preliminary examination in writing; or they are by putting in the plea of guilty to an indictment. Extra judicial confessions are those which are made by the part elsewhere than before a magistrate or in open court. 1 Greenl. Ev. Sec. 216. See, generally, 3 Bouv. Inst. n. 3081-2.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
References in classic literature ?
It was six months after Gluck's confession that she returned the Philippines and Hawaii to the United States.
John Hartwell, its editor, elaborated an ingenious theory that got around the confessions of the two criminals and went to show that Gluck was responsible, after all, for the murder of Irene Tackley.
requirement that a suspect's confession have indicia of reliability
NGUGI'S CONFESSION The court was ready to hear a confession made by one of the accused persons.
The confession statement in lawyer Willie Kimani's murder case that was expected to be presented in court yesterday was adjourned after one of the defence lawyers said he was sick.
But it said Friday that the issue of confession was a "new development" presented by Laura Pontikes in the AP report and would be "thoroughly reviewed in accordance with canon law."
This is another case of a confession made outside the court and not during a judicial proceeding, which is known as an extra-judicial confession.
His big confession: years ago he told people that he had AIDS, but he did not in fact have it.
Now that the Lenten season has begun, the Catholic Diocese of Rockford is again inviting people to come to confession during its "Be Reconciled" initiative set for Wednesday, April 10.
Confession and Memory in Early Modern English Literature: Penitential Remains, by Paul D.
One of the questions I asked the archbishop was: If someone who engaged in EJKs came to him for confession, what would he do?
Connelly the Supreme Court held that police misconduct is necessary for an inadmissible confession. Since the Connelly decision, courts and scholars have framed the admissibility of a confession in terms of whether it successfully deters future police misconduct.