UTILITY OF CONFESSIONAL STATEMENT IN CRIMINAL TRIALS
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
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:
“… 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.
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.
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 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.