When a defendant challenges the voluntariness of a statement or a confession, the trial justice is required to conduct a preliminary hearing outside the presence of the jury. The statement is admissible if an examination of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant voluntarily waived the right to remain silent and have the assistance of counsel. However, the inquiry does not end there. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island requires, as a further constitutional safeguard, that when the trial justice admits such statement, he must specifically instruct the jury that before it may consider the evidence substantively, it must first determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the inculpatory statement was not obtained in violation of the defendant's constitutional guarantees.
Defendant was convicted for child abuse for allegedly lowering the victim, a small boy, into a tub of scalding water while babysitting him. When detective gave her a prepared rights form which informed her that she was a criminal suspect and apprised her of her rights and asked if she understood them, she answered not well. The detective reviewed her rights with her, and she signed the form, which contained a waiver of the right to have an attorney appointed for her. At a suppression hearing, the trial judge asked her to read the form, and relying upon his observation of her reading skills and her demeanor, concluded that she understood her rights and agreed to answer questions because she viewed herself as innocent and thus not in need of an attorney. However, he failed to submit to the jury the question of whether defendant's statement to the detective was voluntary. On appeal, the court sustained the appeal, reversed the conviction, and remanded for a new trial.
Did the trial court erroneously fail to instruct the jury on the voluntariness of defendant's statement?
The trial judge committed reversible error in failing to instruct the jury that before it could consider defendant's statements substantively, it had to first determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the inculpatory statement was not obtained in violation of defendant's constitutional guarantees.