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Law School Case Brief

Arizona v. Fulminante - 499 U.S. 279, 111 S. Ct. 1246 (1991)


The admission of an involuntary confession is a "trial error," similar in both degree and kind to the erroneous admission of other types of evidence. The evidentiary impact of an involuntary confession, and its effect upon the composition of the record, is indistinguishable from that of a confession obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment, of evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, or of a prosecutor's improper comment on a defendant's silence at trial in violation of the Fifth Amendment. When reviewing the erroneous admission of an involuntary confession, an appellate court, as it does with the admission of other forms of improperly admitted evidence, simply reviews the remainder of the evidence against the defendant to determine whether the admission of the confession was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.


After respondent Fulminante's 11-year-old stepdaughter was murdered in Arizona, he left the State, was convicted of an unrelated federal crime, and was incarcerated in a federal prison in New York. There he was befriended by Anthony Sarivola, a fellow inmate who was a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was masquerading as an organized crime figure. Sarivola told Fulminante that he knew Fulminante was getting tough treatment from other inmates because of a rumor that he was a child murderer, and offered him protection in exchange for the truth. Fulminante admitted that he had killed the girl and provided details about the crime. After Fulminante was released from prison, he also confessed to Sarivola's wife, whom he had never met before. Subsequently, he was indicted in Arizona for first-degree murder. The trial court denied his motion to suppress the confession to Sarivola, rejecting his contention that it was coerced and thus barred by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. He was convicted and sentenced to death. The State Supreme Court held that the confession was coerced and that the Court's precedent precluded the use of harmless-error analysis in such a case. It remanded the case for a new trial without the use of the confession. The government appealed.


Should the confession be barred from admission because of coercion?




The judgment barring defendant's confession was affirmed by the Court. The Court held that the confession was coerced and that the state failed to meet its burden of establishing, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the admission of the confession was harmless error. There was a credible threat of physical violence to defendant unless he confessed. Admission of a coerced confession did not automatically require reversal of a conviction but was subject to harmless error analysis because it involved a trial error that could be assessed in the context of other evidence. Admission of defendant's confession was not harmless error because it was unlikely that he would have been prosecuted at all absent the confession, the admission of the confession led to the admission of other evidence prejudicial to defendant, and the confession influenced the sentencing phase of the trial.

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