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Court ruling favors accused

The Supreme Court refused Monday to permit prolonged, secret questioning of crime suspects, ruling that even voluntary confessions may not be used in a federal court if the defendant was held more than six hours before confessing.

Justice David H. Souter pointed to the surprising number of persons who have been shown to be innocent through DNA evidence but had confessed to a crime.

Police questioning “isolates and pressures the individual,” he said, “and there is mounting empirical evidence that these pressures can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.”

The 5-4 decision upheld a federal rule dating back to the 1940s that says crime suspects should be brought before a magistrate as soon as possible.

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The Constitution requires crime suspects to be given a “probable cause” hearing within 48 hours of their arrest, the court said in 1991.

Monday’s decision set aside the confession of a man convicted of robbing a Philadelphia-area bank and who was held and questioned by the FBI for two days before he was brought before a magistrate. Johnnie Corley had signed a written confession.

In sending the case back to Philadelphia, Souter said the confession could not be used unless agents could show that Corley agreed to speak within six hours of his arrest.

The decision turned on how to interpret a 1968 law in which Congress said confessions could be used in federal court if they were “voluntarily given.” Another provision of that law says the defendant’s statement can be used “if such confession was made or given by such person within six hours immediately following his arrest.”

Souter said this law required confessions to be excluded if the suspect was not brought before a magistrate and instead was questioned at length.

Without such a rule, “federal agents would be free to question suspects for extended periods before bringing them out in the open, and we have always known what custodial secrecy leads to,” Souter wrote. “No one with any smattering of the history of 20th century dictatorships needs a lecture on the subject, and we understand the need even within our own system to take care against going too far.”

The six-hour rule applies only in federal prosecutions. In state and local cases, police must follow the 1966 Miranda ruling that requires police to tell suspects they have a right to consult a lawyer and a right to remain silent.

Joining Souter’s opinion in Corley vs. United States were Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

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David McColgin, a federal defender in Philadelphia who represented Corley, said the ruling was significant. “Agents can use subtle pressure to get people to make a confession,” he said. “One way to do it is to keep someone isolated for a long time.”

The four dissenters said the majority had misread the law, arguing that Congress intended to protect voluntary confessions, not to cast doubt on those that emerged from extending questioning.

Monday’s ruling may not mean Corley will go free. Three men robbed a bank in Norristown, Pa., in 2003, and Corley was the only person charged and convicted of the crime.

He was given 14 years in prison. His confession was the only evidence against him, the court noted.

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david.savage@latimes.com


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