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Minnesota Supreme Court Announces Confession Must Be Corroborated by Independent Evidence Crime Occurred, Rejects Federal ‘Trustworthiness Standard’ for Corpus Delicti Rule

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Minnesota announced that Minn. Stat. § 634.03 (2020) requires a defendant’s confession to be corroborated by independent evidence reasonably tending to prove that the specific offense charged has been committed.

During a police interview, Bryan Morgan Holl confessed to several incidents of sexually abusing his 13-year-old stepdaughter identified as “CD.” Holl provided details of each incident, including one where he and CD were in the woods deer scouting, and she held his penis while he urinated. Holl was charged with five separate counts of criminal sexual conduct against CD, with Count 1 being the deer-scouting incident.

At trial, CD’s testimony provided corroborating details for each charged offense except for Count 1. Instead, she testified to an incident during “duck season” in Holl’s truck but nothing about Count 1. The jury also heard Holl’s confession. He was found guilty of all charges, and he appealed. He argued, inter alia, that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction on Count 1 because the State failed to present any independent evidence to corroborate his confession as required by § 634.03. A divided Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the conviction on Count 1. The Minnesota Supreme Court granted the State’s request for further review.

The Court observed that the common law “corpus delicti rule” (Latin for “the body of the crime”) is codified at § 634.03, which reads in pertinent part: “A confession of the defendant shall not be sufficient to warrant conviction without evidence that the offense charged has been committed....” It stated that the issue presented is to define the phrase, “evidence that the offense charged has been committed.”

The State argued that a “trustworthiness standard” is the proper standard regarding whether a confession is sufficient for a conviction under § 634.03, reasoning that the trustworthiness of the confession itself is sufficient without corroboration by independent evidence that the crime was actually committed. Holl opposed the State’s trustworthiness standard, arguing that the plain language of the statute itself requires independent corroborating evidence. The Court observed that although it has discussed the proper application of the statute over the past 170 years, it’s never specifically interpreted the statute’s language. See, e.g., In re Welfare of M.D.S., 345 N.W.2d 723 (Minn. 1984).

The Court stated that the corpus delicti rule requires the prosecution to “introduce evidence independent of an extrajudicial confession to prove that the confessed crime actually occurred.” Allen v. Commonwealth, 752 S.E.2d 856 (Va. 2014). The purpose of the rule is to ensure that the prosecution “has established the occurrence of a crime before introducing the statements or confessions of the accused to demonstrate that the accused committed the crime.” Commonwealth v. Taylor, 831 A.2d 587 (Pa. 2003).

Most scholars attribute the origins of the corpus delicti rule to Perry’s Case, 14 How. St. Tr. 1312 (Eng. 1661). In that case, John Perry along with his mother and brother were executed after Perry’s confession, during official interrogation, implicated all three of them in the murder of his master William Harrison. The Crown presented Perry’s confession as evidence of the murder but was unable to produce any other evidence, and Harrison’s body was never found. A few years after the execution of the Perry family, Harrison reappeared and explained that he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. The execution of the completely innocent Perry family led some English courts to require confessions be supported by independent evidence corroborating that the crime actually occurred in order for a conviction. David A. Moran, In Defense of the Corpus Delicit Rule, 64 Ohio St. L.J. 817 (2003).

In the United States, the corpus delicti rule was adopted primarily to: (1) avoid wrongful convictions, (2) discourage law enforcement from forcibly extracting false confessions, and (3) ensuring confessions are reliable. See Smith v. United States, 348 U.S. 147 (1954). This is known as the traditional interpretation of the corpus delicti rule, i.e., a confession must be corroborated by independent evidence to ensure that a crime was actually committed. Holl argued in favor of this interpretation.

The Court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the traditional interpretation for federal crimes and adopted a new rule dubbed the trustworthiness standard. See Id.; Opper v. United States, 348 U.S 84 (1954); United States v. Calderon, 348 U.S. 160 (1954). In the foregoing three cases decided on the same day in 1954, the Supreme Court decided that confessions no longer had to be supported by corroborating independent evidence; instead, the Supreme Court instructed that the prosecution must produce “substantial independent evidence which would tend to establish the trustworthiness of the statement” or confession. Opper.

The Court explained that the trustworthiness standard differs from the traditional interpretation “by focusing on the content and context of the confession and the facts rather than simply looking to whether there is evidence, completely independent of the confession, showing that the crime was committed.” See State v. Parker, 337 S.E.2d 487 (N.C. 1985). This is the standard the State urged the Court to adopt.

Turning to the present case, the Court had no trouble interpreting § 634.03 in favor of the traditional interpretation of the corpus delicti rule and rejecting the State-supported trustworthiness standard. The Court declared: “On its face, we are unable to find ambiguity within the plain language [of § 634.03].” It added that there’s nothing in the statute “implicitly referring to the trustworthiness of the confession itself.”

The Court acknowledged that some of its relatively recent precedent discussing § 634.03 has been unclear and cause for confusion. See, e.g., State v. Lalli, 338 N.W.2d 419 (Minn. 1983) (clearly stating independent evidence requirement codified in § 634.03); In re Welfare of M.D.S., 345 N.W.2d 723 (Minn. 1984) (implicit adoption of trustworthiness standard); State v. Heiges, 806 N.W.2d 1 (Minn. 2011) (same). The Court took this opportunity to unambiguously “hold that the plain language of Minn. Stat. § 634.03 requires the State to present evidence independent of a confession that reasonably tends to prove that the specific crime charged actually occurred to sustain the defendant’s conviction.”

The Court instructed that circumstantial evidence can constitute sufficient independent evidence for corroboration. It further instructed that when multiple offenses are charged, “the confession to each charged offense must be individually corroborated by independent evidence that the particular offense occurred.”

The Court explained that it’s never adopted a definitive standard for reviewing the application of § 634.03, so it announced that it’s adopting a de novo standard of review.

Applying the foregoing rules and standards to Count 1, the Court rejected the State’s argument that it provided three sufficient independent corroborating items of evidence to support a conviction, viz., (1) CD’s testimony regarding other sexual assaults by Holl, (2) CD’s testimony that Holl touched her sexually during “duck season,” and (3) general lack of coercion surrounding Holl’s confession.

As to item (1), the Court stated that evidence of other crimes is insufficient to establish that a different crime has been committed and held that “§ 634.03’s corroboration requirement cannot be fulfilled simply by introducing evidence of other offenses.” Regarding item (2), the Court stated that there were three major factual differences between CD’s “duck season” testimony and Holl’s “deer scouting” confession, and thus, the Court held that CD’s duck season testimony was insufficient corroboration. Finally, with respect to item (3), the Court explained that lack of coercion is irrelevant to an independent corroborating evidence determination and rejected it as independent evidence sufficient to support a confession. Thus, the Court ruled that the State failed to provide sufficient independent evidence under § 634.03 for a conviction on Count 1.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. See: State v. Holl, 966 N.W.2d 803 (Minn. 2021). 

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