499 U.S. 279 (1991), 89-839, Arizona v. Fulminante

Docket Nº:No. 89-839
Citation:499 U.S. 279, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302, 59 U.S.L.W. 4235
Party Name:Arizona v. Fulminante
Case Date:March 26, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court

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499 U.S. 279 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302, 59 U.S.L.W. 4235




No. 89-839

United States Supreme Court

March 26, 1991

Argued Oct. 10, 1990



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, 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, 206. Pp. 285-288.

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

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that the admission of Fulminante's confession to Sarivola was harmless. Pp. 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 [111 S.Ct. 1249] 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. 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. 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,

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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. 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. 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. 313.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in this case that respondent Oreste Fulminante's confession, received in evidence at his trial for murder, had been coerced, and that its use against him was barred by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The court also held that the harmless error rule could not be used to save the conviction. We affirm the judgment of the Arizona court, although for different reasons than those upon which that court relied.


Early in the morning of September 14, 1982, Fulminante called the Mesa, Arizona, Police Department to report that his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Jeneane Michelle Hunt, was missing. He had been caring for Jeneane while his wife, Jeneane's mother, was in the hospital. Two days later, Jeneane's body was found in the desert east of Mesa. She had been shot twice in the head at close range with a large caliber weapon, and a ligature was around her neck. Because of the decomposed condition of the body, it was impossible to tell whether she had been sexually assaulted.

Fulminante's statements to police concerning Jeneane's disappearance and his relationship with her contained a number of inconsistencies, and he became a suspect in her killing. When no charges were filed against him, Fulminante left Arizona for New Jersey. Fulminante was later convicted in New Jersey on federal charges of possession of a firearm by a felon.

Fulminante was incarcerated in the Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in New York. There he became

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friends with another inmate, Anthony Sarivola, then serving a 60-day sentence for extortion. The two men came to spend several hours a day together. Sarivola, a former police officer, had been involved in loansharking for organized crime, but then became a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While at Ray Brook, he masqueraded as an organized crime figure. After becoming friends with Fulminante, Sarivola heard a rumor that Fulminante was suspected of killing a child in Arizona. Sarivola then raised the subject with Fulminante in several conversations, but Fulminante repeatedly denied any involvement in Jeneane's death. During one conversation, he told Sarivola that Jeneane had been killed by bikers looking for drugs; on another occasion, he said he did not know what had happened. Sarivola passed this information on to an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who instructed Sarivola to find out more.

Sarivola learned more one evening in October, 1983, as he and Fulminante walked together around the prison track. Sarivola said that he knew Fulminante was "starting to get some tough treatment and whatnot" from other inmates because of the rumor. App. 83. Sarivola offered to protect Fulminante from his fellow inmates, but told him, "`You have to tell me about it,' you know. I mean, in other words, `For me to give you any help.'" Ibid. Fulminante then admitted to Sarivola that he had driven Jeneane to the desert on his motorcycle, where he choked her, sexually assaulted her, and made her beg for her life, before shooting her twice in the head. Id. at 84-85.

Sarivola was released from prison in November, 1983. Fulminante was released the following May, only to be arrested the next month for another weapons violation. On...

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