The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last week saying that coerced confessions may be used in some criminal trials is shocking proof that the Reagan-Bush Supreme Court is not conservative but reactionary. In the field of criminal justice it has now turned the clock back over 50 years or nearly 100 years, depending on how you look at it.
In 1897, the court ruled that in federal criminal trials, coerced confessions were forbidden by the Fifth Amendment. In 1936, it said the Fourteenth Amendment extended that prohibition to state trials. It has said repeatedly since then that if a coerced confession was admitted into evidence in a trial, no conviction could stand, no matter how much other evidence there was to prove the confessor's guilt, no matter how "harmless" the trial court's error of admitting the confession was.
It is easy to see why. In the first place, as Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a case from Arizona last week, a confession is almost as damaging as "a videotape of the crime." That's true even though, as Justice Byron White said, "some coerced confessions may be untrustworthy . . . [and] distort the truth seeking function of the trial."