Arizona v. Fulminante, 89-839

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation113 L.Ed.2d 302,111 S.Ct. 1246,499 U.S. 279
Docket NumberNo. 89-839,89-839
PartiesARIZONA, Petitioner v. Oreste C. FULMINANTE
Decision Date26 March 1991

499 U.S. 279
111 S.Ct. 1246
113 L.Ed.2d 302
ARIZONA, Petitioner



No. 89-839.
Argued Oct. 10, 1990.
Decided March 26, 1991.
Rehearing Denied May 20, 1991.

See 500 U.S. 938, 111 S.Ct. 2067.


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, 93 S.Ct. 2041, 2047, 36 L.Ed.2d 854, 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, 80 S.Ct. 274, 280, 4 L.Ed.2d 242. 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

Page 280

doubt, 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 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 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, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705, 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, 110 S.Ct. 1441, 108 L.Ed.2d 725. 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, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799; Tumey v. Ohio,

Page 281

273 U.S. 510, 47 S.Ct. 437, 71 L.Ed. 749, 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, 92 S.Ct. 2174, 33 L.Ed.2d 1, 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. ----. 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. ----.

Barbara M. Jarrett, Phoenix, Ariz., for petitioner.

Paul J. Larkin, Washington, D.C., for the U.S., as amicus curiae, in support of petitioner, by special leave of Court.

Stephen R. Collins, Phoenix, Ariz., for respondent.

Page 282

Justice WHITE delivered an opinion, Parts I, II, and IV of which are the opinion of the Court, and Part III of which is a dissenting opinion.

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

Justice MARSHALL, Justice BRENNAN and Justice STEVENS join this opinion in its entirety; Justice SCALIA joins Parts I and II; and Justice KENNEDY joins Parts I and IV.

Page 283

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...

To continue reading

Request your trial
5421 cases
  • Bucio v. Sutherland
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • December 4, 2009
    ...error analysis applies to coerced confessions." Coomer v. Yukins, 533 F.3d 477, 488 n. 4 (6th Cir.2008) (citing Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 295, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302 (1991)). Petitioner is not entitled to habeas corpus relief unless such error "had substantial and injuri......
  • People v. Gayanich, A113729 (Cal. App. 4/27/2007), A113729
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • April 27, 2007
    ...of prejudice in the context of the evidence presented in order to determine whether the error was harmless. (Arizona v. Fulminante (1991) 499 U.S. 279, 307-308; People v. Marshall, supra, 13 Cal.4th 799, 851-852.) "Failure to submit a sentencing factor to the jury, like failure to submit an......
  • People v. Dykes, S050851.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • June 15, 2009
    ...fails to establish the existence of any "structural defect" such as was identified by the high court in Arizona v. Fulminante (1991) 499 U.S. 279, 309-310, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302, that would lead us to overlook our forfeiture Defendant adds that, even if the evidentiary claim was f......
  • L. A. Cnty. Dep't of Children & Family Servs. v. C.P. (In re J.P.)
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • September 26, 2017
    ...that most structural defects ‘defy analysis by "harmless-error" standards.’ (Arizona v. Fulminante ( [1991] ) 499 U.S. [279,] 309 [111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302].) Errors that can ‘be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine whether [they we......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
48 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • December 1, 2020
    ...(47) Id. at 739; see Paris, supra note 6, at 59. (48) 496 U.S. 292, 294-95 (1990). (49) See id. at 295-96. (50) Id. at 296-97. (51) 499 U.S. 279, 286-87 (52) Id. at 287-88; see also Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U.S. 560, 564-65, 567 (1958) (holding confession coerced where police implied that lac......
  • Motions related to defendant's statements
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Texas Criminal Forms - Volume 1-2 Volume I
    • April 2, 2022
    ...from fellow inmates is deemed to be coerced, and therefore inadmissible under the Fourteenth Amendment. Arizona v. Fulminante , 499 U.S. 279, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302 (1991). The confession statutes permit the use of confessions and statements by defendants in custody when they are n......
  • Table of Cases
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 2 - 2015 Contents
    • August 17, 2015
    ...2d 530 (1972), §§4:20, 4:43.20 Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1, 115 S.Ct. 1185, 131 L.Ed.2d 34 (1995), §§1:21.3, 2:22 Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302 (1991), §§6:24.1,6:25.1, 6:51, 6:71 Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302 (1......
  • Introduction to Evidentiary Foundations
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2016 Contents
    • July 31, 2016 determine whether error that adversely affects a party’s constitutional rights will require a reversal. Arizona v. Fulminante , 111 S. Ct. 1246 (1991). Harmless error rule also applies to admission of involuntary confession; the mere use of a coerced confession in a criminal trial will n......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT