Ashcraft v. Tennessee 322 U.S. 143, 64 S. Ct. 921, 88 L. Ed. 1192 (1944)
Ashcraft's wife was found dead
in a ditch. A few days later, the police arrested Ashcraft, put him in an
interrogation room, and questioned him for 36 hours straight.
There was some disagreement
about what exactly was said and done in the interrogation room. The
police claimed he confessed and was calm and lucid, Ashcraft claimed he
did not confess and was tired and confused.
The police called
Ashcraft's personal doctor, who showed up and examined him and said he
At the end, the police gave
Ashcraft a confession to sign and he refused
...implying that he still
retained free will.
The police claimed that
Ashcraft fingered Ware as the killer. They picked up Ware, who confessed
and then claimed Ashcraft paid him to kill his wife. Ashcraft was arrested
and charged with murder.
The Trial Court convicted
Ashcraft of murder. He appealed.
The Tennessee Supreme Court
upheld the conviction. Ashcraft appealed.
The US Supreme Court reversed
and threw out the conviction.
The US Supreme Court found
that Ashcraft had been excessively coerced and therefore his confession
was not voluntary.
The Court found that 36
hours of interrogation is inherently coercive, no matter how the suspect
Coerced confessions are
inherently unreliable and therefore inadmissible.
The Court found that involuntary
confessions are unconstitutional as a violation of the Due Process
Clause of the 14th
In a dissent it was argued
that the Court was deciding the facts of this case (which they are not
supposed to do). The dissent argued that there should be no bright line
rule about what is coercive. The trial courts should look into the facts
of each case and determine if the particular police tactics against that
particular defendant caused that particular defendant to lose free will
and make a false confession. To say that 36 hours of questioning in
inherently coercive in all cases unnecessarily ties the hands of law
enforcement, who must balance the need to respect human rights with the
need to solve crimes.
The dissent noted that the
police didn't physically beat Ashcraft, so how could it be consider
excessive? Questioning is a normal part of police procedure. Isn't all
questioning, of any duration, coercive?
Plus Ashcraft always had
the right to demand a lawyer and stop talking, but he did not assert
The dissent conceded that
physical force (or threat of it) is always impermissible, so there is at
least a bright line rule against that.
One reason for establishing
bright line rules as to what the police can and can't do is that if the
cases were adjudicated on a case-by-case basis (as the dissent suggested),
then case law would never develop clear rules and the police would get no
guidance on what is permissible.
Also, specific facts are
hard to ascertain. How do you tell if someone was really using free
It would also require more
hearings, and there would be no way to do appellate review.
On the other hand, what
about extra-wimpy suspects? Shouldn't there be a thin-skull rule for
people who lose free will and make coerced confessions even though the
coercion isn't very intense?