Colorado v. Connelly

479 U. S. 157

December 10, 1986

One day in 1983, God spoke directly to Francis Connelly, and ordered him to go to Denver and confess the murder he had committed there the previous year. Connelly found a police officer and began spilling the beans. The police officer quickly gave him the Miranda warning, but Connelly went ahead and continued to provide information. Much later, when he was no longer hearing voices from God, Connelly sought to suppress his confession on Fifth Amendment and Miranda grounds. He argued that his confessions were involuntary, having been coerced by God, and thus inadmissible.

The Court, speaking through Chief Justice Rehnquist, addressed three issues. By a 7-2 vote, it held that a confession made without any police coercion, regardless of any spiritual or other outside coercion, does not violate the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination. By a 6-3 vote, it held Connelly had voluntarily waived his Miranda rights, and that the absence of police coercion is once again the touchstone of such a determination. Finally, by a 5-4 vote, it held that waiver of Miranda rights could be proved by a preponderance of the evidence standard, rather than by a more stringent standard. The majority felt that the Constitution was designed to curb police misconduct, and that if the police did not coerce confessions in any way, there ought to be minimal barriers to admissibility in court.

Blackmun joined the first two holdings, but felt that the discussion of the standard to prove Miranda waiver was beyond the scope of the Court’s review. Stevens contended that all of Connelly’s statements were involuntary. He felt that involuntary confessions could survive Fifth Amendment scrutiny (so long as no police coercion was involved), but drew the line at involuntary waiver of Miranda privileges, even if police coercion was absent. Because Connelly was not in his right mind he lacked the capacity to waive his Miranda rights, and thus everything he said after being given the warning was inadmissible.

Brennan, joined by Marshall, dissented from all of the Court’s holdings. Brennan argued that Connelly suffered from mental illness, and that such sufferers should be protected from having their statements used against them, regardless of a lack of police coercion. He based this conclusion in part on the dubious reliability of any statement made by someone affected by mental illness. Also, like Stevens he found that Connelly lacked the mental capacity to waive any Miranda rights. Oddly enough, I actually found his interpretation of the Court’s precedent more compelling than Rehnquist’s. That said, I still side with Rehnquist on this one, because Connelly seems more consistent with the text and purpose of the Fifth Amendment and Miranda than the various precedents discussed.

What I find particularly interesting about Brennan’s dissent is his contention that Connelly’s urge to confess was delusional. I’m not sold on that – I’m willing to leave open the possibility that God really did command that Connelly confess. And you better believe that I don’t want to subscribe to a theory of criminal law that would prohibit the admission of a confession commanded by God Himself. In the midst of his dissent, Brennan bemoans the majority’s “refusal to acknowledge free will as a value of constitutional consequence.” As a Calvinist, I must say I am dismayed to hear that Brennan believes my theology is inimical to our Constitution. In any event, I’m glad the Court made the call it did – I’m all in favor of any rule that lets the truth be heard, and lets murderers be brought to justice.

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One thought on “Colorado v. Connelly

  1. Pingback: 1986-1987: Conservative Victories | Vintage Bracketology

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