Peter Brooks


I want to talk about a certain kind of narrative that has long held a particularly problematic status in the law. As a kind of prologue to my remarks, let me mention the record of a criminal case that I stumbled upon in the Yale Law Library. It is from 1819 in Manchester, Vermont, where the disappearance of the cantankerous Russell Colvin led to an accusation that his feuding neighbors, Stephen and Jesse Boom, had murdered him-to which, after their conviction, they eventually confessed, only to have it discovered that Colvin wasn't even dead, but merely gone to live in Schenectady, New York. The subtitle of a narrative of the events gives the essential information: "A Full and Veracious Account of the Amazing Events in Vermont: How Stephen and Jesse Boom, two Brothers, were Accused, Arrested, Indicted, Tried, Convicted and Sentenced to Die by Hanging for the Wilful Murder of Russell Colvin of Manchester, Having confessed the Crime; how, while the Condemned Men Languished in Prison, it was Proved that Colvin had not been Murdered, but was Alive and in Good Health and how He Returned to Manchester and Saved the Unfortunate Doomed Men from a Terrible Fate."

The confession narrative is a particularly dramatic instance of a story that needs to be told, but needs to be told voluntarily, in the correct context, according to the rules. I want to ask why it is that confession-specifically the context in which confession is acceptable, certifiably voluntary, and thus admissible in evidence-has posed such a problem to the law. I also want to consider whether the long tradition of literary confession may offer any illumination. The encounter between legal and literary discourses on the nature and contexts of the confessional act may help us understand why it has proved so difficult to offer a convincing analysis of the protections accorded self-incrimination.