WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, breaking with nearly a half-century of precedent, ruled 5-4 yesterday that criminal convictions based partly on a confession forced out of the suspect do not always have to be thrown out.
A coerced confession, the majority declared, may be treated as merely a "harmless error" if there was enough other evidence at the trial to convict the accused person anyway.
That result contrasted with a line of decisions, going back perhaps to 1945, that had declared that any time a jury heard about a confession that was coerced, the guilty verdict could not stand -- no matter how strong any other proof of the crime had been.
The ruling split the nine justices into multiple splintered blocs, voting in different patterns on three separate and crucial aspects of the decision -- thus creating what Justice Byron R. White publicly called a "kettle of fish."
The key constitutional ruling was supported by all five of the justices who got their current places on the court through nomination by Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan.
The ruling appeared to mark a major philosophical shift to the conservative side on a central criminal law issue and raised the prospect that the new dominant group of five conservative justices could control rulings in that field -- possibly undoing several of the liberal results left over from the years when Earl Warren was chief justice.
Justice White, a moderate justice who often has voted as a conservative on criminal law questions, led the dissenters yesterday. Although he almost never reads any of his opinions from the bench, he spoke twice, at considerable length and with apparent emotion, as he alternated with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in describing the multifaceted ruling.
A confession, Justice White said, may be "the most damaging evidence that can be admitted" against an accused person, so one that was unconstitutionally coerced should never be allowed to support a conviction.
The chief justice, however, said that allowing a coerced confession into a case was only a "trial error," subject to analysis as to whether it was "harmless" because other evidence was sufficient to convict.
Justice White led a bloc of five justices who ruled that an Arizona inmate's confession to murdering his 11-year-old stepdaughter nine years ago had been coerced. The inmate, Oreste C. Fulminante, while in prison for another crime, had described the child's murder to a fellow inmate after being promised protection from other prisoners who were threatening Fulminante after they had heard he had killed a child.
That coerced confession was used at Fulminante's trial for the Arizona killing, and Justice White said it had been a critical factor in the case. Joining Justice White in declaring that confession unconstitutional were Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens.
That part of the ruling, however, simply applied existing law that governs when a confession is invalid because it was forced.
But, a different grouping of five justices -- led by the chief justice -- laid down the sweeping new constitutional decision declaring that coerced confessions, when they find their way into a trial, may be treated as "harmless" when other evidence would have supported a guilty verdict anyway.
The case that led to yesterday's major Supreme Court ruling on criminal confessions (Arizona vs. Fulminante, No. 89-839) began nine years ago, when a man walking his dog in the Arizona desert found the body of an 11-year-old girl who had been shot twice in the head and apparently had been strangled.
Her stepfather, Oreste C. Fulminante of Mesa, became a suspect but was not then charged, and he left the state. Later, while serving time in Ray Brook Federal Prison in New York for another crime, he confessed to a fellow inmate, Anthony Sarivola, who was a paid FBI informant, about killing the girl.
Arrested in New York on a gun offense after leaving prison, Fulminante was then taken back to Arizona and tried for the child's murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death. The court ruled yesterday that his confession to Sarivola had been coerced and that he was entitled to a new trial.