499 U.S. 279 (1991), argued 10 Oct. 1990, decided 26 Mar. 1991 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist and White for the Court, White, Blackmun, Marshall, and Stevens in dissent on various parts of the opinion. This case produced one of the most fractured divisions among the justices in the history of the Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion for the Court, but he did so only on certain aspects of the case, while Justice Byron R. White wrote for a majority in two other important areas.
The case began in 1982 with the abuse and murder near Mesa, Arizona, of an eleven-year-old girl, the stepdaughter of Oreste Fulminante. Fulminante was considered a prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to bring a charge. Shortly thereafter he was arrested in New Jersey for gun possession and placed in a federal prison in New York. While incarcerated there, word spread among the convicts that Fulminante had murdered the young girl. As a result, the other prisoners directed a program of intimidation and harassment at him, making the slightly built prisoner fear for his life. Fulminante befriended one of the inmates, who offered to extend protection to him, but only if he told him the truth about the murder. The other inmate, unknown to Fulminante, was also an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Not only did Fulminante confess to the informant about the crime but he said the same things to the informant's wife when released from prison. As a result, he was convicted in Arizona and sentenced to death.
Fulminante appealed the conviction to the Arizona Supreme Court, arguing that his confession had been coerced and then improperly admitted. Counsel for Fulminante cited the Supreme Court's decision in Chapman v. California (1967) to claim that three forms of governmental misconduct—coerced confessions, absence of counsel, and a biased judge—had been sufficient to automatically invalidate a conviction and trigger a new trial. None of these practices could be considered “harmless error,” a category of government action that, while not approved of, was, according to Chapman, not sufficient to overturn a conviction. The “harmless error” analysis meant that some kinds of actions, such as improper jury instructions or the exclusion of certain testimony, could be overlooked if other evidence would have produced the same result at trial.
Before the high court the case produced the unusual outcome of two opinions. One block of justices, led by Justice Byron R. White, agreed with the Arizona Supreme Court that Fulminante deserved a new trial free from any reference to the confession that he gave the FBI informant and his wife. At the same time, however, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist produced another majority that held that while Fulminante deserved a new trial, coerced confessions were not automatically excluded from harmless error analysis. In this instance, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the chief justice and deserted Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens. Justice David Souter, newly appointed to the Court by President George Bush, sided with the chief justice. Souter, of course, had replaced Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who had been one of the steadfast supporters of the Court's position that coerced confessions could never fall under harmless error analysis.