In a rare, unanimous pro-defense ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this week tossed out a 50-year prison sentence and ordered a new trial for Guadalupe Vasquez, ruling that the trial court improperly failed to instruct the jury that the "voluntariness" of a written confession in the case was disputed. Said the court:
Appellant, Guadalupe Vasquez, signed a written confession after seven hours of interrogation at the police station. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress the videotape of the interrogation and the written statements. The trial court held a hearing on the issue. After hearing the testimony of one of the interrogating officers, the trial court recessed the hearing to watch the seven-hour videotape of the interrogation. The trial court reconvened the hearing several days later, denied the motion to suppress, and dictated findings of law and fact into the record. Appellant was tried by a jury. At the close of the guilt phase of trial, Appellant requested a jury instruction on voluntariness, and the State objected to its inclusion. The court refused Appellant's request to submit the issue of voluntariness to the jury. The jury found Appellant guilty of murder and sentenced him to 50 years' imprisonment. The court of appeals reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial, holding that the trial court had erred by refusing to submit Appellant's issue of voluntariness to the jury. We affirm the decision of the court of appeals.Some Texas prosecutors are up in arms over the ruling, claiming the court's position is muddled and unclear, but if you read the opinion it seems pretty clear to me. If a defendant disputes the voluntariness of a confession and a judge admits it anyway, a jury should be instructed as to the dispute if the defendant requests it. Vasquez's attorney did.
Nationally, 25% of DNA exonerations of innocent people have come in cases where juries heard what turned out to be a false confession, so in the scheme of things this is a minimal safeguard. Even better would be a requirement that interrogations be recorded, a move implemented recently in New Jersey for all violent crimes.