Responding to a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that said a criminal conviction doesn't have to be overturned simply because a coerced confession was part of the evidence, the House of Delegates today passed a bill aimed at strengthening the rights of defendants.
By a vote of 86-40, the delegates approved a measure that says a court cannot convict a defendant if a coerced confession has been admitted as evidence. Even if all the other evidence in the case besides the confession was enough to convict the defendant, the bill states, the conviction must be overturned on appeal.
Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore Co., the bill's sponsor, introduced the same measure late in last year's session after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in March 1991. That ruling, in the case of Arizona vs. Fulminante, said the admission of an involuntary confession could be considered only a harmless "trial error" if the rest of the evidence was enough to convict the defendant.
Mr. Arnick's bill passed the House in the last week of the General Assembly last year but failed to pass the Senate. Senate approval is still needed for this bill.
The issue drew heated debate about the rights of criminals and the role of the legislature in reversing Supreme Court decisions.
"It's my understanding this case that we're trying to reverse says nothing about admitting involuntary confessions," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard, who opposed the bill last year.
"All it says is if a judge makes a mistake and lets in a confession that later proves to be involuntary, then an appellate court can say that if there's so much other evidence besides the confession, then the case may not be overturned," Mr. Flanagan said. "And we are walking down a dangerous path if we begin reversing Supreme Court decisions simply because we don't like this court," he added.
Mr. Arnick, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the high court ruling weakened a basic constitutional right that protects suspects from being forced into making confessions.
"All the accused have to protect them are the courts and us," he said. "What we're trying to say today is the courts and prosecutors have to play by the rules."