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ARIZONA V. FULMINANTE, 499 U. S. 279 (1991)

U.S. Supreme Court

Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991)

Arizona v. Fulminante

No. 89-839

Argued Oct. 10, 1990

Decided March 26, 1991

499 U.S. 279


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. When 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, inter alia, 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 this 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.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

161 Ariz. 237, 778 P.2d 602, (1988), affirmed.

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and IV, concluding that:

1. The State Supreme Court properly concluded that Fulminante's confession was coerced. The court applied the appropriate test, totality of the circumstances, cf. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U. S. 218, 412 U. S. 226, to determine the confession's voluntariness, and plainly found that Fulminante was motivated to confess by a fear of physical violence, absent protection from his friend Sarivola. The court's finding, permissible on this record, that there was a credible threat of physical violence is sufficient to support a finding of coercion. Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U. S. 199, 361 U. S. 206. Pp. 499 U. S. 285-288.

2. Under harmless error analysis, which the Court has determined applies to the admission of coerced confessions, post at 499 U. S. 306-312, the State has failed to meet its burden of establishing, beyond a reasonable doubt,

Page 499 U. S. 280

that the admission of Fulminante's confession to Sarivola was harmless. Pp. 499 U. S. 295-302.

(a) A defendant's confession is like no other evidence. It is probably the most probative and damaging evidence that can be admitted against him, and, if it is a full confession, a jury may be tempted to rely on it alone in reaching its decision. The risk that a coerced confession is unreliable, coupled with the profound impact that it has upon the jury, requires a reviewing court to exercise extreme caution before determining that the confession's admission was harmless. Pp. 499 U. S. 295-296.

(b) The evidence shows that the State has failed to meet its burden. First, the transcript reveals that both the trial court and the State recognized that a successful prosecution depended on the jury's believing both confessions, since it is unlikely that the physical and circumstantial evidence alone would have been sufficient to convict. Second, the jury's assessment of the second confession could easily have depended on the presence of the first. The jury might have believed that the two confessions reinforced and corroborated each other, since the only evidence corroborating some aspects of the second confession was in the first confession. Without that confession, the jurors might have found the wife's story unbelievable because the second confession was given under questionable circumstances, and they might have believed that she was motivated to lie in order to receive favorable treatment from federal authorities for herself and her husband. Third, the admission of the first confession led to the admission of evidence about Sarivola's organized crime connections, which depicted Fulminante as someone who willingly sought out the company of criminals and, thus, was prejudicial to him. Finally, it is impossible to say beyond a reasonable doubt that the judge, who, during the sentencing phase, relied on evidence that could only be found in the two confessions, would have passed the same sentence without the confession. Pp. 499 U. S. 296-302.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II, concluding that the harmless error rule adopted in Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18, is applicable to the admission of involuntary confessions. The admission of such a confession is a "trial error," which occurs during a case's presentation to the trier of fact, and may therefore be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine whether its admission is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See, e.g., Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U. S. 738. A trial error differs markedly from violations that are structural defects in the constitution of the trial mechanism, and thus defy analysis by harmless error standards. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335; Tumey v. Ohio,

Page 499 U. S. 281

273 U. S. 510, distinguished. It is also not the type of error that transcends the criminal process. In fact, it is impossible to create a meaningful distinction between confessions elicited in violation of the Sixth Amendment, whose admission is subject to harmless error analysis, see, e.g., Milton v. Wainwright, 407 U. S. 371, and those elicited in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, since both confessions have the same evidentiary impact and may have been elicited by equally egregious conduct. Pp. 499 U. S. 306-312.

WHITE, J., delivered an opinion, Parts I, II, and IV of which are for the Court, and filed a dissenting opinion in Part III. MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined Parts I, II, III, and IV of that opinion; SCALIA, J., joined Parts I and II; and KENNEDY, J., joined Parts I and IV. REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered an opinion, Part II of which is for the Court, and filed a dissenting opinion in Parts I and III., post, p. 499 U. S. 302. O'CONNOR, J., joined Parts I, II, and III of that opinion; KENNEDY and SOUTER, JJ., joined Parts I and II; and SCALIA, J., joined Parts II and III. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 499 U. S. 313.

Page 499 U. S. 282

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