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SD Supreme Court: Trustworthiness Is New Standard For Admitting Confessions

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The South Dakota Supreme Court has issued an opinion that gives both sides what they asked for. The state's attorney argued for a new rule to determine whether a defendant's confession is admissible, and the court agreed that the old rule has outlived its usefulness. The defense attorney asked for the old rule to still apply for her client, and the court agreed that it could not in all fairness apply the new rule retroactively in the middle of trial preparation.

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Assistant Attorney General Jared Tidemann on trustworthiness standard

In an interim opinion issued last week, the South Dakota Supreme Court changed the method of gauging whether a confession can be introduced at trial.

Prior to the high court's decision in SD v. Alvin Plastow, state courts used the rule of corpus delicti, which requires independent evidence that a crime has been committed.

Going forward, the state Supreme Court will review cases using a trustworthiness standard, which tests the veracity of the confessor.

During oral arguments in October, Assistant Attorney General Jared Tidemann asked the high court to apply the trustworthiness standard in the Plastow case, which has not yet gone to trial.

"The trustworthiness test focuses more so on whether there's corroborating evidence to show that the statement is true or believable," Tidemann says. "The prosecution must provide evidence to establish confidence in the truth of the confession. And the truth can be corroborated through facts that make the confession believable or facts that may corroborate the crime, or a combo of both. The rule still says, to the sufficiency question, that there must be some corroboration; that is, a defendant cannot be convicted based on the confession alone."

In its written opinion, the high court determined that the corpus delicti rule is an outdated product of common law. Justices say the rule is not required by the Constitution, state statute, or rules of evidence. And they say it possibly obstructs justice for vulnerable victims such as children or mentally handicapped people.

However, the court is not applying the change retroactively, so if the child rape charge against Plastow goes to trial, the judge will use the old rule to determine if Plastow's statements to investigators are admissible.

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