confession, in law, the formal admission of criminal guilt, usually obtained in the course of examination by the police or prosecutor or at trial. For a confession to be admissible as evidence against an accused individual, it generally must have been procured voluntarily after the person was informed of his or her right to remain silent and right to consult an attorney (see Miranda v. Arizona). If a confession is obtained through torture, threats, prolonged interrogation, or false promises of immunity from prosecution, it is inadmissible, but law enforcement officials may and do use psychological pressure, which can lead to false confessions. A signed confession is presumed to be voluntary, and the accused must introduce proof that it was extorted in order to prevent its introduction at the trial. In 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that murder defendants should be informed of their right to remain silent during interviews with psychologists, who might later testify for the prosecution that the client was "dangerous" and thus deserving of a stiff penalty. A 1986 ruling stated that a criminal defendant entering a plea of "not guilty" had the right to describe to the court how his confession was obtained by police. The ideal of a voluntary confession was upset recently, however, in the case of Arizona v. Fulminante (1991). There, the Supreme Court ruled that coerced confessions do not invariably nullify a conviction, but can be regarded merely as "harmless errors"—at least where additional incriminating evidence is available. Usually, a person who does not plead guilty cannot be convicted solely on the basis of his confession.
See P. Brooks, Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (2000).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.