The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a confession coerced by police or others and admitted at trial does not automatically bar a guilty verdict as long as other evidence is deemed sufficient to convict a suspect.

The court, in a 5-4 ruling that marked a major philosophical shift in the rights of criminal suspects, said a confession that is illegally obtained - such as through the use of physical force or intimidation - does not automatically disqualify prosecution and can be considered "harmless error" that was incorrectly admitted at trial but does not require overturning a conviction.The court for decades had held that a coerced confession disallowed a conviction because it violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

Tuesday's ruling, backed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and all four of the justices appointed to the court by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, also reversed an exception to the "harmless error" rule adopted by the high court in 1967.

In the so-called Chapman case that term, the court said there are three situations so grievous to a defendant that they never can be deemed "harmless error" and always require that a conviction to be overturned: the court's failure to appoint an attorney, a biased judge, or a coerced confession.

Tuesday's ruling left only two exceptions to the rule.

"The admission of an involuntary confession is a `trial error,' similar in both degree and kind to the erroneous admission of other types of evidence," wrote Rehnquist, joined by justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and David Souter.

Justice Byron White, in a dissent joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, said the majority "without any justification . . . overrules this vast body of precedent without a word and in so doing dislodges one of the fundamental tenets of our criminal justice system."

The decision means that while a coerced confession in the past was grounds for automatic dismissal of a conviction, an appeals court now can decide on a case-by-case basis if other evidence was sufficient to convict and allow the guilty verdict to stand.

Tuesday's surprise ruling came in a case involving Oreste Fulminante, an Arizona man convicted of killing his stepdaughter after an FBI informant in prison got him to confess the crime in return for protection from other prisoners.

But in this case, if Arizona decides to try him again, it cannot use his prison confession.


(Additional information)

Other court action

- Ruled that U.S. citizens working in foreign nations for American companies are not protected by a federal law that prohibits bias against women and minorities.

- Resolved a major threat to the government's efforts to police the savings and loan industry as it killed a lawsuit against federal regulators by a failed Texas thrift's former owner.