As an Aggressive Maryland Criminal Attorney for almost 20 years I have handled hundreds if not thousands of criminal cases in which my client is alleged to have made an incriminating statement or a confession to the police. For obvious reasons, these statements are devastating to the defense and under most circumstances all but ensure a conviction.
Typically the only available strategy in these situations is to file a motion to suppress the statement alleging some violation of the defendant’s Constitutional Rights in the taking of the statement. Unfortunately for criminal defendants, these statements are rarely suppressed by trial judges, particularly when they are given after the defendant is advised of his Miranda rights and the statement is recorded. But that is exactly what happened in this case. Here are the facts:
In March of last year the Baltimore City police were called to the scene of a single car accident. The responding officers found a car crashed into a telephone pole with the unresponsive driver slumped over the steering wheel. An examination of the driver revealed that he had been shot in the back and had apparently subsequently driven from the scene of the shooting to the scene of the crash. He was transported to the hospital where he later died from the gunshot wound. There were no witnesses to the shooting.
The next day my client, whom the State conceded was the victim’s closest friend, made several phones calls and sent text messages to the victim’s phone. Eventually, the detective answered the victim’s phone, inquired as to who my client was and requested a face to face meeting with him. He agreed and they met at my client’s home shortly thereafter. The detective advised my client that his friend had been murdered and asked basic background questions of him. He was apparently not a suspect at this point as there was no evidence suggesting that he had anything to do with the murder. In fact, to this day, the only evidence the police have against my client is the statement he made that we believe was the subject of coercion and manipulation.
The detective then conducted a very superficial investigation for the next 9 days and essentially turned up no evidence as to who committed the crime or why. And this is where things got interesting. For no apparent reason, the detective called my client and requested a second meeting with him. I should point out that my client has an IQ of 67 and is mildly autistic. His doctor advised me that he is “extremely susceptible to manipulation” by an aggressive personality. On cross-examination the detective could not explain why he needed to speak with my client again given that he had not turned up any evidence implicating him in the murder. His only explanation was that he needed to ask “additional background questions” and that he wanted to ask him about two women whose fingerprints were found in the vehicle. The problem with that explanation, as I pointed out to him on cross, was that nowhere in the two hours of taped statements did he bother to explore either of those subjects with my client. Needless to say, this to not bolster his credibility with the court.
At this time my client was represented by a different attorney whom he knew reasonable well and had his cell phone number. He became concerned by the detective’s request to speak with him again, so he called his attorney to see what he should do. The attorney advised him that if he had nothing to do with the murder but wanted to help solve the case, he should speak to the detective. Several hours later after speaking with several friends, he called the attorney again and advised that he was “really scared” and that he thought the detective was going to try to frame him for the murder. At this point the attorney advised him in no uncertain terms, NOT to speak to the detective and to tell him specifically that he was represented by counsel. He even made the client repeat his instructions back to him including reciting his full name and telephone number.
We have telephone records proving that this call took place and that it lasted 2 minutes and 42 seconds. The phone records then show that the client immediately called the detective. The call connected just 79 seconds later and this call lasted just over 3 1/2 minutes. At the hearing on the motion to suppress the statement, the attorney confirmed the substance of the telephone calls between him and the client. The detective claims that my client never even mentioned his attorney during that conversation. He showed up at my client’s house about a half hour later.
The client testified that he did exactly what his lawyer told him to do telling the detective repeatedly that he had an attorney, providing his name to the detective and telling him that he did not want to be questioned without his lawyer. He testified that the detective came out to his house anyway and repeatedly threatened to “put the murder on him” if he did not agree to be interviewed. He testified that he demanded an attorney over and over again during the ride to the police station as well as once he arrived there but was not allowed to call his attorney so that he could be present during the interrogation. Police records show that he was logged into the station for 40 minutes or so before the detective turned on the recorder. The detective admitted that he questioned him during that period. At that point the client was Mirandized on tape and gave an hour long statement denying any involvement in the case repeatedly advising the detective that the victim was his closest friend and that he had no reason in the world to harm him.
The detective admitted under direct and cross examination that he then turned the tape off but continued to interrogate the client for approximately the next hour. The client testified that the detective continued to threaten him and tell him that he would only help him if he “admitted” that he had shot the victim. He told him that if he didn’t do so, he would put the murder on him and make sure that he “spent the rest of his life in prison”. The detective eventually turned the tape back on and the client immediately claimed that he had in fact shot the victim providing just a few details that he says were provided to him by the detective. The details were that they had been out together along with my client’s girlfriend and had gotten into an argument that had turned into a fist fight. During the fight he felt a gun stuffed in the back of the victim’s jeans,pulled it out and shot the victim in the back as he attempted to flee. Interestingly, my client didn’t have a scratch on him as a result of this “fight” and the police could not recover the handgun from the sewer he said he through it in. The detective, of course, denied that he threatened the defendant or that he provided the details of his statement to him.
Those of us who work in the criminal justice system recognize that the average person is very reluctant to believe that anyone would confess to a crime that they did not commit. But the simple fact of the matter is that it happens quite frequently. The Project Innocence group has thus far secured the release of 321 wrongly convicted individuals through DNA testing. These tests prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were innocent of the crime that they were convicted of, usually rapes or murders where blood and/or semen was left behind by the assailant. Yet in a staggering 30% of those cases the defendant gave an incriminating statement, an outright confession or pled guilty to a crime that they did not commit. Here is a link to their website which details some of these cases. http://www.innocenceproject.org/understand/False-Confessions.php.
The Innocence Project concludes that this false confession phenomenon happens for a variety of reasons including in cases of diminished capacity such as this case in which the defendant is not only mildly autistic but legally retarded based on his 67 IQ score. At the hearing, we demonstrated that the State did not have a shred of evidence to corroborate the statement. We proved that the phone calls took place between the defendant and the attorney and that the police repeatedly questioned him without recording the interview. In the end the Court concluded that the client had in fact invoked his right to counsel and that the detective ignored the invocation and questioned him anyway in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. The Court suppressed the statement and, because the State had no other evidence, released the defendant on bail pending the State’s expected appeal of her decision. We are extremely confident that the ruling will be upheld on appeal but will update this blog once the ruling is issued.