Tuesday, July 15, 2003
S.C. Tosses Murder Conviction, Declares Confession Involuntary
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A confession obtained from a youthful defendant whose repeated requests for counsel were ignored was involuntary and should not have been admitted at his murder trial, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Chief Justice Ronald George, writing for a unanimous court, rejected prosecutors’ claims that since Kenneth Neal, then 18, requested the interview during which he confessed to strangling 69-year-old Donald Collins, his statement was properly admitted into evidence at his trial before Tulare Superior Court Judge Gerald F. Sevier.
Neal said he killed Collins, with whom he had been living in Springville for several weeks, after an argument over what television programming to watch. He also accused the older man of sexually assaulting him.
The two met several years before the 1999 killing, when Neal was living at a group home for boys in Porterville and Collins was a child care worker.
Along with the defendant’s age, George cited his low intelligence and minimal education and the number times he requested counsel-nine-in explaining why his second degree murder conviction was being reversed. Neal was also subjected to threats and isolation and deprived of food, drink and toilet facilities during his interrogation, the chief justice said.
No Impeachment Use
Distinguishing People v. Peevy (1998) 17 Cal.4th 1184, in which the high court held that a confession obtained in violation of a suspect’s Miranda rights could be used for impeachment purposes, George said the confessions obtained from Neal by Tulare Sheriff’s Detective Mario Martin were involuntary and inadmissible for any purpose.
The issue posed was “related to the question in Peevy but nonetheless distinct,” George explained. He continued:
“Here, at the first interview, Detective Martin intentionally continued interrogating defendant in deliberate violation of Miranda, in order to be able to impeach him, in spite of defendant’s invocation of both his right to remain silent and right to counsel...but Martin obtained only an exculpatory statement. The following day, after defendant initiated further contact, Martin elicited defendant’s two confessions.”
George said the detective’s conduct went beyond “blatant disregard” of Miranda, as it was characterized by Sevier at trial. Martin, he declared, “purposefully disobeyed Miranda’s injunction.”
The chief justice explained:
“Martin’s message to defendant could not have been clearer: Martin would not honor defendant’s right to silence or his right to counsel until defendant gave him a confession.”
George said the Fifth District Court of Appeal, which affirmed Neal’s conviction in an unpublished opinion in April of last year, erred when it agreed with Sevier that the defendant initiated the second interview voluntarily.
“It is true that defendant did not confess to Detective Martin in the course of the first interview, but asked to speak to Martin the following day, although only after a night in custody without access to counsel or other noncustodial personnel and without food or drink or toilet facilities,” George observed, but he added:
“From the fact of defendant’s resistance, and Martin’s overcoming of his resistance, we may infer that defendant received the message that Martin would not honor defendant’s right to silence or right to counsel until defendant confessed.”
The chief justice conceded that enough other evidence was introduced at trial to support the jury’s guilty verdict, but he said it was impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless-the standard required by Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18.
Examiner’s Testimony Cited
He noted that a document examiner testified an incriminating note left at the crime scene, purportedly from another roommate with whom Collins had had a stormy relationship, was actually written by Neal. Had the confessions, in which Neal admitted writing the note, been excluded, the defendant might have been able to cast doubt on that testimony, George said.
“The consequence of the officer’s misconduct—the absolute inability to introduce the confessions at trial—is severe,” the chief justice wrote, “but is intended to deter other officers from engaging in misconduct of this sort in the future.”
Justices Joyce Kennard and Marvin Baxter authored separate concurrences. Kennard said she would have analyzed separately the question of whether the Miranda waiver obtained from Neal at the beginning of his second interview with Martin was knowing and intelligent, concluding it was not.
Baxter, with whom Justices Ming Chin and Carlos Moreno joined, noted that Martin testified he had been trained to continue custodial questioning in violation of Miranda by a sergeant who described the tactic as a “useful tool.”
The justice explained:
“[N]othing in Peevy was meant to condone deliberately improper interrogation tactics, whether individual or systematic.”
It is “unconscionable for police departments or supervisors to give contrary instruction or encouragement to the officers under their jurisdiction,” he declared.
The case is People v. Neal, 03 S.O.S. 3684.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company