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 was fine.
    • 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 appears.
        • 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 Amendment.
  • 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 that right.
      • 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 will?
    • 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?