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Court Rules in Denver Case that Confessions of Mentally Ill Defendants May Be Used

December 10, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court ruled today that confessions of mentally ill criminal defendants may be used against them.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, said Denver prosecutors may use as evidence statements by an accused murderer who said the voice of God ordered him to confess or commit suicide.

Justice William H. Rehnquist, in his opinion for the court, said suspects are protected by the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment only against police coercion to confess.

″It goes no further than that,″ he said. A suspect’s ″perception of coercion flowing from the ‘voice of God,’ however important or significant such a perception may be in other disciplines, is a matter to which the United States Constitution does not speak.″

Rehnquist added that the voluntariness of a confession depends ″on the absence of police overreaching, not on free choice in any broader sense of the word.″

The high court overturned a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that ordered the suppression of statements by Francis Barry Connelly in the stabbing death of 14-year-old Mary Anne Junta.

Connelly walked up to a Denver policeman on Aug. 18, 1983, and confessed to having ″killed someone.″

After being apprised of his so-called Miranda rights to representation by a lawyer and told not to talk to police, Connelly told the officer he killed the Junta girl the previous winter. Her body, at the time unidentified, was found in April 1983.

Connelly took police to the place he said the killing occurred and he made other incriminating statements.

A Denver trial judge ruled that Connelly’s confession and all the evidence police obtained as a result of it could not be used against him because he had not confessed voluntarily. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed in a July 1985 ruling that said Connelly did not act out of ″free will″ or with ″a rational intellect.″

A psychiatrist appointed by the trial judge testified that Connelly was a paranoid schizophrenic not competent to waive his Miranda rights. The psychiatrist said Connelly flew from Boston to Denver to talk to police only after the voice of God told him he must confess or commit suicide.

Colorado law enforcement officials said one might substitute dictates of ″conscience″ for the ″voice of God.″

Connelly had been in and out of mental institutions five times since 1979, with his most recent release in April 1983 after a 10-day stay.

Today’s ruling frees Denver prosecutors to use Connelly’s statements to police as evidence, unless courts in Colorado order suppression of the statements on other grounds.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William J. Brennan said the ruling ″denies Mr. Connelly his fundamental right to make a vital choice with a sane mind, involving a determination that could allow the state to deprive him of liberty or even life.″

Justice Thurgood Marshall joined in Brennan’s opinion.

Justice John Paul Stevens voted with the majority in overturning the Colorado Supreme Court, but on narrower grounds. Stevens said only Connelly’s statements to police before he was taken into custody should be allowed as evidence.

The case is Colorado vs. Connelly, 85-660.

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