CONFESSIONAL STATEMENT UTILITY IN CRIMINAL TRIALS (AN OVERVIEW)
The confessional statement of an accused person is of great evidential value in the dispensation of justice. It represents the most important and most frequently encountered exception to the rule against hearsay in criminal cases.
This piece of work is propelled toward examining the fundamental conditions of the admissibility in evidence against any person equally of any oral answer given by that person to a question put by a police officer and of any statement made by that person, that it shall have been voluntary in the sense that it has not been obtained from him by fear of prejudice or hope of advantage, exercise or held out by a person in authority.
In this work, we will summarize the most important aspects of the common law rules and proceed to examine the statutory definition and rules of admissibility of confessions.
Chapter one of this work gives an insight into nature, scope and relevance of confessional statement; and the judge’s rule and their application in Nigeria. Chapter two focuses on utility of confessional statement in criminal trials; circumstances in which confessional statement are admissible and circumstances in which confessional statements may be vitiated and application in decided cases.
Chapter three predominantly dwelled on retracted confessional statement and its effect on criminal trials in Nigeria. This chapter also examines whether retraction of previous confessional statements affects it’s admissibility and reasons why accused persons resiles from earlier statements.
Lastly, Chapter four solely focused on certain factors which must be taken into consideration before the confessional statement of an accused person is admitted in evidence.
An adverse admission relevant to the issues of guilt in a criminal case is known at Common Law as confession, and the same terminology is employed by the Evidence Act 1990. As indicated above, confessions represent the most important and most frequently encountered exception to the rule against hearsay in criminal cases, fundamental changes in the law pertaining to confessions were introduced by the Evidence Act 1990, but in order to understand the principles of admissibility of confessions, it is necessary to understand the principles of admissibility developed at common law to govern the admissibility of confessions. Apparently, we will summarize the most important aspects of the common law rules, we will then proceed to examine the new statutory definition and rules of admissibility of confessions.
While the common law recognized that a confession might be both reliable and cogent as evidence of guilt, and indeed saw no objection to a conviction in cases where a confession was the only evidence against the accused, the law recognized that a confession could be regarded as reliable only when given freely and voluntarily. If coerced on forced, reliability of the confession might be totally compromised and the integrity of the system of administration of justice itself made to suffer. The exclusion of evidence obtained through torture, force or other coercive methods was the means of protection of the accused developed by the judges during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the memory of an age when such methods were commonplace still lingered. Its significance may be gauged by the fact that in English law, the rule that a confession obtained by oppression, in circumstances likely to render it unreliable must be excluded, is the only instance of the mandatory exclusion of illegality or unfairly obtained evidence. The classic statement of the common law rule as to admissibility of confession was that of Lord Sumner in Ibrahim .V. R1
“It has been established that no statement by an accused is admissible in evidence against him unless it is shown by the persecution to have been voluntary statement, in the sense that it has not been obtained from him either by fear, or prejudice or hope of advantage exercised or held out by a person in authority”.
In common parlance, ‘voluntary’ meant simply of one’s free will’. That test of voluntariness, as defined by Lord Sumner was supplemented by Lord Parker C.J in Callis .V. Gunn2, when he
- (1914) A C 559, 609
- (1964) IQB 495,501
added the requirement that a confession must not have been
obtained in ‘an oppressive manner’, his observation was, strictly speaking, obiter – the case involved the admissibility of fingerprint evidence. But when the Judges’ Rules appeared in revised form in 1964, the introduction started that the rules did not affect the principle, which was overriding and applicable in all cases that:
… It is a fundamental condition of the admissibility in evidence against any person equally of any oral answer given by that person to a question put by a police officer and of any statement made by that person, that it shall have been voluntary in the sense that it has not been obtained from him by fear of prejudice or hope of advantage, exercise or held out by a person in authority.
Interestingly, Lord Sumner’s phrases fear of prejudice’ and ‘hope of advantage’ are habitually spoken of as ‘threats and ‘inducements’ respectively. It give rise to some problems in the application of the rules of admissibility at common law. In particular, the suggestion of some deliberate act in the words ‘threats’ and ‘inducements’ for a time led the courts to concentrate on the mind of the questioner, rather than on the mind of the suspect. As the problem may recur, despite the apparently clear wording – of the 1990 act, it is worth pursuing briefly. In R .V. Iseguilla3, the court of Appeal concluded that:
- (1975) I. W. L. R. 716,721-2
“… Under the existing law the exclusion of a confession as a matter of law because it is not voluntary is always related to some conduct on the part of authority, which is improper or unjustified. Included in the phrase ‘improper or unjustified’ of course must be the offering of an inducement, because it is improper in this context for those in authority to try to induce a suspect to make a confession”.
This view of the law would have left the accused without recourse in a case where without any improper intent and perhaps even without realizing it, the questioner created some fear of prejudice or hope of advantage in the mind of the suspect.’ In such a case, the resulting confession might well be involuntary, but under the Isequilla rule, would nonetheless be admissible. In D.P.P .V. Ping Lin4, the House of Lords was called upon to decide whether it was the state of mind of the questioner or that of the suspect which was to control the question of voluntariness. The House firmly held that it was the latter that governed the question of whether or not the confession was voluntary, and that should therefore also control the question of admissibility.
- (1976) A. C, 574
Indeed, the rules of admissibility applied only where the fear of prejudice or hope of advantage was excited or held out, or the oppression created by a ‘person in authority’, The question of what persons were or were not persons in authority, has, however, settled that a person in authority must have, or reasonably be thought by the suspect to have, some influence over his arrest, detention or persecution, or in other words, be of a person from who a threat or inducement might appear credible. The limitation of the rule in this way was not of great importance, since the vast majority of confessions are made to police officers and others who are undoubtedly persons in authority, and it has been abolished expressly by the Evidence Act 1990. But it remains germane to consider it in the light of the common law rule that the fear of prejudice or hope of advantage must have been generated by the person in authority, with the consequence that self-generated fears and hopes would not destroy the voluntariness of the confessions. However, the result is different under the new statutory rules, even though the confession is made to a person who previously have been a person in authority.
In addition to the rules governing admissibility, the trial Judge had power to exclude a confession, in the exercise of his discretion, where it had been obtained by means of or following a breach of the
Judges’ Rules. The Judges’ Rules were rules of conduct and procedure for the guidance of police officers and others concerned in the arrest, detention and interrogation of suspects. They were fist promulgated by the judges of the then king’s Bench Division in 1912, and subsequently revised from time to time. The Rules were not rules of law, and did not affect the legal principles of admissibility of confession. However, in R. V. May6, Lord Goddard C.J held that the trial judge might refuse to admit a statement if a breach of the rules occurred. But the main importance of the rules always lay in the fact that a breach of the rules might provide evidence that the resulting confession was not voluntary.
1.2 DEFINITION OF CONFESSION
At common law, a confession was the name given to an adv-erse admission by the accused relevant to the issue of guilt in a criminal case. In Nigeria, as the case in point, confessions are covered by section 27 to 32 of the Evidence Act 1990. The word “confession” is derived from the Latin word ‘confessus’ which mean to speak or confess completely? 7.
Under the Evidence Act8, confession is defined thus:
“A confession is an admission made at any time by a person
charge with a crime, stating or suggesting the inference that he committed that crime.
- v. Rennie (1982)I. W. C. R.64
- (1952) 36Cr. App R. 91,93
A confession, like any other admission, may be made orally, in writing, by conduct or in any way from which a proper inference may be drawn adverse to the maker. Usually confessions are made to police officer or other investigators as a result of interrogation, but may equally be made to the victim of an offence, a friend or relative or any other person.
The law regarding confessions is now the same in all cases, and it no longer matters whether the person to whom the confession is made is a person in authority.
Importantly, although in common law parlance, the word ‘confession’ connotes a full admission of guilt, it has no such meaning in law, either at common law or under the statutory definition. As long as any part of a statement is adverse to the maker, in that it has some relevance to the issue of guilt, it will be deemed a confession for the purpose of the law of evidence.
More still, going by the definition given by the Evidence Act, it is clear that admission of such guilt can be made “at anytime’ is so far it was made after the commission of an offence. Such a confessional
statement can even be made before the accused is charged.
- The lawyer’s biggest journal of Bendel State University law student Association 1989. Pg.8
- Section 27(1) Evidence Act cap112 laws of the federation, 1990
The case of Sunday Onungwa .V. The state9 is very illustrative in this respect. In that case, the appellant was convicted of murder. It appeared from evidence which the trial judge accepted that, during the investigations (by the police) preliminary to him being charged with the offence, the appellant admitted to ownership of a blood stained matchet recovered near the scene of the murder admitting at the same time that he had killed the deceased “as a result of the work of the devil”. The admissions was made in the presence of other members of his family amongst them was his elder brother who also testified confirming the admission made by the appellant. It was argued at the lower court that these admissions being “extra judicial” should have been rejected and that when the admissions were made it was not then decided the appellant should be charged with any offence and that no caution was administered to the appellant before they were made. Overruling these submissions, the Supreme Court held: ‘that an admission made at anytime by a person charged with crime suggesting the influence that he committed the offence is a relevant fact against the maker and if it is made voluntarily it is admissible in evidence.
- (1976)2 Scpg. 169 R.V. Udo Eka Ebong (1997)12 WACA
Also, in Gbadamosi .V. State10, confessions was defined thus:
“Legally, the word ‘confession’ means an admission of an offence by an accused person it means an acknowledgement of crime by an accused person. It is an admission made at anytime by a person charged with crime stating or suggesting the inference that he committed the crime”.
For a confessional statement to be admitted in evidence, it must be freely and voluntarily made. The accused person must make it out of his own freewill and choice.
1.3 NATURE AND SCOPE OF CONFESSIONAL STATEMENTS
Confessions are either judicial or extra judicial. Judicial confessions are confessions made in the court in the course of the proceeding in question. Section 27 of the act is obviously wide enough in its wording to cover both, but judicial confessions are also expressly dealt with in section 218 and sections 314 of the criminal procedure Act and section 37 of the Evidence Act, also section 157(1), 161(2) and 187(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code. If during his trial in court an accused person confesses to the
- (1991)6 NWIR PT 196 pg 182 at 189, also Ikemson.V. State(T.989)3 NWTR PT 100 pg.455
offence charged, and such a confession is in the nature of a plea of guilty section 218 of the Criminal Procedure Act prescribes the consequences of such a plea11“, Section 161(2) and 187(1) of these Criminal Procedure Code deals respectively With such consequences in trials in the magistrate courts and in the High Courts of the Northern State. It should be noted that by pleading guilty, an accused person does not admit the truth of the facts contained in the dispositions. He merely admits that he is guilty of the offence as charged and nothing else12.
Under section 314 of the criminal procedure Act, a statement made by an accused person at preliminary inquiry is admissible without further proof unless it is proved that the magistrate purporting to sign the statement did not infact sign it, whilst under section 37 of the Evidence Act any statement made by an accused person at such an inquiring or at a coroners inquest may be given in evidence.
Usually ‘admission’ in relation to a crime is used to denote the admission of a fact relevant to the crime, whilst ‘confession’ is used
- V. Olagunju (1961) 1All N. L. R. 21 .R.V.Wilson (1954)VFSC175
- RovRiley (1896) Q.B 309
- Edet Obosi J. the state (1965) NMIR 119, 122
- Customs & Excise Commissioners IV. Harz & power (1967) IALLER 177,182
to denote the admission of guilt13. However, the definition of confession seems wide enough to include an incriminating admission falling short of a full confession14”.
An admission made in a plea in civil proceedings does not amount to a confession for the purpose of criminal proceedings. Also an extra- judicial admission of guilt made in another proceeding not being the one in which it is intended to prove the confession must have been made by the person and not his counsel. In R .V. Asuquo Etim Inyang15 the accused was resident in Calabar and went through a form of marriage in the church there. Some 18 months later proceedings were taken against him in the magistrate court to enforce a maintenance order made against him by London magistrate’s court in respect of a marriage which the accused had contracted in England seven years previously. Before the Calabar magistrate’s court counsel for the accused admitted the facts of the London marriage. The accused himself merely gave evidence as to his financial circumstances. Criminal proceedings on a charge bigamy were instituted against him at the Calabar assizes, the prosecution relying solely on the two marriage certificates and the
- (1931) I. O. N. L. R 33
- Olusegun Ofutale & others .V. the state N. M. L. R. 261
- (1961) All N.L.R. 654 (F.S.C)
admissions made before the Calabar magistrate. It was held that the admissions could not be treated as confessions for the purposes of proving the criminal charge as they were not made by the accused himself. An extra judicial confession though made orally would carry no less weight than the one made in writing16.
A confession must be direct and positive, not equivocal. In RaimiAdebisi Afolabi .V. Commissioner of police17, the accused was the storekeeper to a firm in Ibadan. When a shortage was discovered in his stores and this was brought to his notice by the manager of the firm, he told the manager that he had taken certain of the stores and sold them to assist defray his election expenses but he did not indicate how much he had sold. During a retrial he repudiated this story. It was held that, ‘as the alleged confession was neither direct nor positive as to the items contained in the charges, it was not admissible. However in R .V. Akpan Udo Essien18, it was held that a statement amounting only to a confession of implication in the crime cannot be regarded as a confession under this heading. A man confess to his own acts, knowledge or intentions but he cannot ‘confess’ as to the acts of other persons which he had not seen and of which he can only have knowledge or hearsay. The failure by the prosecutor to prove an essential element in the offence charged cannot be cured by an admission of this kind19”, he point has also been raised whether by section 27(1), which speaks of “an admission made at anytime by a person charged”, it is intended that a confession, if it is to be admissible, must have been made subsequent to the accused being charged with an offence. In R. V. Udo Eka Ebong20, it was held that a statement may amount to a confession even if made before the accused was charged with the offence. However, a statement made before the commission of an offence cannot amount to a confession.