The Role of a Trial Jury in Determining the Voluntariness of a Confession

The Supreme Court of the United States has vigorously implemented the principle that criminal prosecution is an investigative, not an inquisitorial, process. Evidence of guilt must be obtained by methods free from physical or psychological coercion. Protections in the Bill of Rights against illegal search and seizure, self-incrimination, and trial without counsel have been extended to the states through the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. Safeguards against the admissibility of coerced confessions into evidence have also been instituted. Because a confession practically determines the ultimate question of guilt, the critical standards for· admissibility are frequently challenged on appeal. Three procedural methods for determining voluntariness have been employed: the orthodox, the Massachusetts, and the New York rules. Under the orthodox rule, the trial judge determines voluntariness after hearing all of the evidence on that issue. If the confession is admitted by the judge, the jury then considers its probative value. The Massachusetts rule similarly requires the judge to pass initially on admissibility, but the jury must also find the confession voluntary before it may consider the credibility of the confession. Under the New York procedure, however, the judge leaves the question of admissibility to the jury when there is a factual dispute concerning voluntariness over which reasonable men could differ. If the jury finds the confession involuntary, it must reach its verdict on the other evidence, disregarding the confession. In Jackson v. Denno, the United States Supreme Court, while expressing approval of both the orthodox and the Massachusetts procedures, held that the New York rule is unfair and unreliable in permitting the jury to determine both voluntariness and guilt and, consequently, that the New Yark rule deprives the defendant of liberty without due process of law.