Criminal Justice: Concern About Confessions

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How does a nation such as the U.S., which professes the Jeffersonian ideal of "equal and exact justice to all men," balance the safety of society against the rights of the individual?

In 1964, the Supreme Court raised that profound issue by hurling a constitutional thunderbolt at the most basic U.S. police method of solving crimes: questioning suspects and extracting confessions. For decades, that system has thrived on the fact that most people are not aware of their constitutional right to silence. By holding that suspects may need lawyers to protect that right not merely in court but in the police station, the court's decision in Escobedo v. Illinois posed a cop's nightmare—no more confessions.

As often happens in great constitutional dramas, the starring player was a nobody: Danny Escobedo, 26, 5 ft. 5 in., 106 Ibs., a Chicago laborer serving 20 years for first-degree murder. Like most convicts, Danny was sure he had taken a bum rap. In his case, the Supreme Court agreed. Danny had confessed to complicity in his brother-in-law's murder, but only after Chicago police had refused to let him see his lawyer, who was in the station house trying to see him.* Not only did the court void Danny's confession: it held that every arrested American is now entitled to consult his lawyer as soon as police investigation makes him a prime suspect.

The Vital issues. Though the 5-to-4 decision, written by Justice Arthur Goldberg before he left the court for the U.N., was clear in Danny's specific case, it was so vague in its general application that it could be interpreted as requiring lawyers throughout some police interrogations. As police see it, this would mean that all suspects would simply stop talking. Out would go the time-honored use of confessions in court, a practice that police claim is vital to conviction in 80% of all criminal cases.

In almost record time the Supreme Court has been forced to face the task of clarifying its own opinion by accepting five new confession cases. They raise six vital issues: 1) When do a suspect's constitutional rights begin? 2) Must police inform him of those rights? 3) Does he need a lawyer to waive them? 4) Are indigents entitled to lawyers in the police station? 5) Does Escobedo retroactively threaten pre-1964 confessions? 6) To what extent does it forbid the whole process of U.S. police interrogations?

The court's answers may affect the liberty and the safety of all Americans. As Justice Abe Fortas put it during the oral arguments last month: "We deal not with the criminal against society, but the state and the individual."

Speechless Things. At the heart of the debate is a search for the proper limit on police power in a free society—a society that confronts its cops with fast cars, urban slums, organized crime, street violence, anonymous people, and a crime rate rising five times faster than the rate of population growth. To cope with such conditions, the police argue that they must have all reasonable authority to question any citizen. Investigation alone, they say, cannot solve many crimes, such as burglary, murder and mugging, in which the culprits leave no physical traces. "I defy anyone to find any meaningful evidence at the scene of a purse snatching," says Cincinnati Police Chief Stanley R.

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