Far From `Harmless'

NOTHING so characterizes a lack of justice as the prying of confessions from accused people through intimidation. It's a practice still common in dozens of countries. But it was specifically excluded from the American system of criminal justice until this week.

A Supreme Court majority, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, held that coerced confessions should be subject to ``harmless error'' analysis. Under this doctrine, the admission of wrongly obtained evidence does not invalidate a verdict if other evidence would have led to a conviction anyway. A coerced confession, in other words, will no longer automatically destroy a prosecutor's case.

Admission of such a confession, like the absence of legal counsel and the presence of a biased judge, had previously been thought an error so substantial that it could never be ``harmless.''

That standard should have been maintained. As Justice Byron White's dissent affirmed, any loosening of the prohibition on coerced confessions is ``inconsistent with the thesis that ours is not an inquisitorial system of criminal justice.''

The court's majority was slim, 5 to 4. It included newly appointed Justice David Souter, who lived up to predictions that he would be tend toward conservatism on criminal issues. Conservatism, in these matters, means giving prosecutors the benefit of the doubt. That's in line with prevailing views among Americans that punishment needs to be surer, and that guilty people should not be let off on technicalities. But coerced confessions - even subtly coerced ones, as in the case before the court - are not mere technicalities.

They're abhorrent to American norms, crossing the line into a type of official behavior made all the more repellent by recent, highly publicized instances of police brutality.

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