Judicial Notebook

Aware of tactics employed by investigators to elicit confessions, the Supreme Court noted that "the modern practice of in-custody interrogation is psychologically rather than physically oriented." The Supreme Court intended the Miranda warning to advise suspects of their rights, guide police conduct and improve the reliability of admissions obtained through interrogation by countering the sometimes overwhelming psychological pressures of an interrogation.

Once the 'cat is out of the bag'

During the 2003-2004 term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases that raise questions about whether the failure to give the Miranda warning prior to eliciting an initial statement requires suppression of a second statement based on the first but obtained after a Miranda warning was given.

In Missouri v. Seibert (93 S.W.3d 700 [2002], cert granted 123 S.Ct. 2091), the defendant was arrested and questioned following the death of a teenager in a fire set by the defendant's son and his friend at the defendant's home. Initially, investigators intentionally chose not to inform the defendant of her rights as required by Miranda. During questioning, the defendant eventually said she had known that the teenager was supposed to die in the fire. After a short break, investigators gave the defendant the Miranda warning and questioned her again, making repeated reference to the prior unwarned statement. The defendant then repeated the admission. The interrogating officer said this two-phased interrogation was a tactic designed to elicit a "breakthrough" admission, with the hope that the suspect would repeat and elaborate on it after being warned. After a trial in which the incriminating statements were admitted, the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Characterizing the tactic as an "end run" around the requirements of Miranda, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the defendant's second statement was involuntary and therefore inadmissible. Recognizing the "evidentiary strength of a confession," the court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

In U.S. v. Fellers (285 F.3d 721 [2002], cert granted 123 S.Ct. 1480), officers went to the defendant's home to arrest him on conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. The officers informed the defendant of the indictment against him and told him they wanted to discuss his involvement. The defendant admitted that he had associated with the named persons and had used methamphetamine. After the defendant was taken into custody and brought to the jail, he was given the Miranda warning. He then repeated and elaborated on the inculpatory statements. Following a trial in which these second statements were admitted as evidence, the defendant was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit held that the warned statements were admissible.

Among the issues raised by these cases is whether the second, warned statements are admissible and whether and under what circumstances a confession can be "truly voluntary once the 'cat is out of the bag.'" (Oregon v. Elstad, 1985).

Implications for psychology

There is a growing body of psychological research investigating the effects of interrogation and the impact of confession evidence on decision-making (see Gudjonsson, 1992, 2003; Kassin, 1997; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993, for reviews). Psychological research has assessed people's abilities to understand Miranda warnings (e.g., Grisso, 1998) and has demonstrated the potential for false confessions (e.g., Kassin & Kiechel, 1996), the relative power of confession evidence (e.g., Kassin & Neumann, 1997), and the inability of jurors to ignore unreliable confessions (e.g., Kassin & Sukel, 1997). Seibert and Fellers raise empirical questions about the effects of the two-phased interrogation tactic on individuals being interrogated. The cases also invite further psychological research into how decision-makers (i.e., jurors or judges) characterize the coerciveness of this and other interrogation tactics and evaluate the degree to which confessions elicited in this manner may be voluntary. Additional research on these issues can further our understanding of false confessions, self-incrimination and the behavioral assumptions underlying the jurisprudence of the Miranda warning.

"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).