House counters court on confessions

January 29, 1992

ANNAPOLIS -- The Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill yesterday aimed at reversing a controversial Supreme Court decision holding that some criminal convictions can stand even if it turns out that coerced confessions from the defendant were used to help convict him.

The House voted 86-40 in favor of the measure, sponsored by Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County. The bill says no criminal conviction can be upheld if the evidence in the trial included a confession that is found to have been involuntary.

Mr. Arnick, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, 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 a harmless "trial error" if the defendant would have been convicted anyway on the rest of the evidence. In such a case the conviction could stand, the court said.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday considered a bill similar to the House bill and sponsored by Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D-Prince George's.

George Lipman, an assistant Maryland public defender, said a vote against would tell police, " 'We'll accept inquisitorial evidence. It's OK if you extract a confession.' "

But Sgt. Mark Howell, supervisor of the Anne Arundel County Police Department's homicide unit, warned about the possible dangers to public safety. "The passage of this bill would provide still another technicality for otherwise guilty persons to get their convictions overturned or a new trial ordered," he said.

In the Supreme Court case, an Arizona man was convicted of murdering his 11-year-old stepdaughter largely because of a confession that both the state and U.S. Supreme courts declared involuntary.

The high court agreed that his conviction was not valid but said that the presence of a coerced confession in a case does not necessarily constitute a "harmful error" on the part of the judge, one that automatically requires a new trial.

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