CAN THE PROSECUTION USE A CONFESSION THAT WAS OBTAIN THROUGH VIOLENCE?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can the prosecution use a confession that was obtain through violence?
This case deals with the prosecution’s ability to use a confession obtained through physical violence by the interrogating officers. Id. at 279. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause forbids the use of such a confession because the state must follow procedures to convict individuals. Id. at 286. Such confessions are inherently against the idea of due process of law and must be withheld from trial. Id. at 287.
In this case, a white farmer was found murdered in Mississippi. Id. at 279. Three African-Americans were arrested for the crime. Id. Each confessed, but only after being extensively and horrendously tortured by police officers. Id. at 281. As the Court noted, “in pertinent respects the transcript reads more like pages torn from some medieval account, than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government.” Id. at 282. The confessions were used to convict each man, and were essentially the only evidence which could support any of the three convictions. Id. at 284-85.
The Court dealt with this issue in rather quick fashion, finding that the police officers had fully admitted to the beatings and other torture used to coerce each confession. Id. at 284-85. The Court noted that “the question of the right of the State to withdraw the privilege against self-incrimination is not here involved,” but instead it is a questions of “the processes of justice” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 285. This is because at the time this matter was decided, the Bill of Rights was not found to incorporate against the States; only the Fourteenth Amendment applied outside of federal prosecutions. Id.
Even without considering if this constituted compelled self-incrimination, the use of confessions obtained through physical violence was found to be a clear violation of due process. Id. As the Court succinctly put it: “The rack and torture chamber may not be substitute for the witness stand.” Id. at 285-86. Allowing such confessions to be admitted would only be a “pretense of a trial” that is in actuality a “deliberate deception of court and jury.” Id. at 286.
Further, the Court noted that the admitting of the confessions went beyond an evidentiary error. Id. Instead, the use of such a confession is “a wrong so fundamental that it made the whole proceeding a mere pretense of a trial and rendered the conviction and sentence wholly void.” Id. The state court was required to “supply corrective process where due process of law had been denied” and was thus required to overturn the conviction, which it had failed to do. Id. at 287.