Arizona v. Fulminante

RESPONDENT: Oreste Fulminante
LOCATION: Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution

DOCKET NO.: 89-839
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: Arizona Supreme Court

CITATION: 499 US 279 (1991)
ARGUED: Oct 10, 1990
DECIDED: Mar 26, 1991

Barbara M. Jarrett - Senior Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, argued the cause for petitioner
Paul J. Larkin, Jr. - argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal
Stephen R. Collins - by appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Arizona law officials suspected that Oreste Fulminante murdered his stepdaughter. He was later arrested in New York for an unrelated crime after the murder and incarcerated. While in prison he became friends with Anthony Sarivola, an inmate paid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect information on other inmates while he served his term. Fulminante initially denied killing his stepdaughter to Sarivola, but admitted it when Sarivola offered him protection from other inmates in exchange for the truth. After his release, Fulminante also confessed to Donna Sarivola, Anthony's wife. Fulminante was indicted for murder in Arizona. Fulminante argued in trial court that his two confessions to the Sarivolas could not be used as evidence since the first was coerced and the second based on the first. The court admitted his confessions as evidence, convicted him, and sentenced him to death. On appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court ordered Fulminante to be retried without the use of the confessions.


1. Did the Arizona Supreme Court properly apply the totality of circumstances test when considering whether a suspect's confession to murder was coerced?

2. Did the Arizona Supreme Court properly apply harmless error analysis when considering whether the suspect's coerced confession influenced the trial outcome?

Media for Arizona v. Fulminante

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 10, 1990 in Arizona v. Fulminante

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 26, 1991 in Arizona v. Fulminante

Byron R. White:

As the Chief Justice indicates, the Arizona against Fulminante is another cattle of fish.

The respondent, Fulminante, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in an Arizona State Court.

At his trial, a confession by respondent to a felony made in prison was introduced in evidence over his objection that the confession was coerced.

On appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court found that the confession was coerced and inadmissible in evidence, but held that its introduction was harmless error.

On reconsideration, however, the court held that in light of the United States Supreme Court's decisions on the issue, no harmless error rule was inapplicable to coerce confessions.

The court therefore, reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial.

We granted certiorari.

I have filed an opinion for the court agreeing with the Arizona Court that the confession was coerced and inadmissible, and holding that even if a harmless error rule is applicable to coerced confessions, as the Chief Justice's opinion to be announced will hold, the error in this case was not harmless.

Fulminante's conviction, therefore, cannot stand and the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court is affirmed.

I filed with the clerk a three-part opinion in this case.

In the first part, I have expressed the dissenting opinion that the facts presented in this case do not support the contention that Fulminante's confession was rendered involuntary because of the conduct of law enforcement officials.

That section has been joined by Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter.

In the second part, I did deliver the opinion of the court that the harmless error rule adapted by this court in Chapman against California is applicable to the admission of involuntary confession.

This section has been joined by Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Souter.

The admission of such a confession is a trial error which occurs during a case's presentation to the trier of fact and may, therefore, be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine whether its admission is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this respect, a trial error differs markedly from violations that are in effect structural defects in the trial mechanism, such as a biased judge or the complete depravation of counsel which we have recognized are not subject to harmless error analysis.

And our holding today is consistent with our earlier decisions that confessions obtained in violation of other constitutional guarantees are subject to harmless error analysis since those confessions have the same evidentiary impact and may have been elicited by equally egregious conduct.

In the third and final part of my opinion, I have expressed the dissenting view that the Supreme Court of Arizona, in its initial opinion, properly concluded that the admission of Fulminante's confession was harmless.

This section has been joined by Justices O'Connor and Scalia.

And Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun, and Justice Stevens and I disagree with the opinion just announced that the harmless error rule is applicable to coerced confessions.

In 1963, Justice Stewart, writing for unanimous court in line against Illinois, rejected as impermissible doctrine the notion that the admission of a coerced confession could be harmless error.

This announcement was nothing new for it reflected the views consistently expressed in the court's prior cases, and it is a view that until today was consistently followed by our decisions dealing with coerced confessions.

In deed, we have thought it actually emetic that a conviction resting in whole or in part on an involuntary confession could not stand regardless of the other evidence of guilt.

And in Chapman against California, from which today's decision is said to derive, we said that while some constitution of violations could be treated as harmless error.

Certain constitutional rights are so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be deemed harmless.

In the Chapman opinion placed in that category, the admission at trial of a defendant's coerced confession.

The reasons for the rule are simple; confessions are very likely the most damaging in providing evidence.

Jurors have difficulty ignoring them even if told to do so.

And confessions extracted by physical or mental coercion are not always trustworthy evidence.

Beyond that, however, the rule has served as a constant reminder to law enforcement officers that ours is not an inquisitorial system of criminal justice, and that the courts will not put up with unconstitutional methods of securing confessions.