Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Ninth Circuit Faults Confession, Orders New Trial in Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG , Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday threw out a 10-year old murder conviction, saying Long Beach police detectives extracted an involuntary confession from the defendant, who was 16 years old at the time.
The panel gave prosecutors 30 days to decide whether to retry Leif Taylor—now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the murder of William Shadden—and 70 days to bring the case to trial if they decide to do so. Judge Alex Kozinski, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the state court rulings allowing the confession into evidence constituted an unreasonable application of U.S. Supreme Court precedent. .
Shadden was shot and killed in May 1993, apparently while chasing two men who had attempted to steal his bicycle. Taylor became a suspect, and about three months after the shooting, detectives armed with search and arrest warrants came to the apartment where Taylor lived with his mother—who was apparently not home at the time—and arrested him at about 11:30 p.m.
He was then subjected to a three-hour interrogation at the police station, ending with an 11-minute audiotape confession.
Before trial, he moved to suppress the confession as having been obtained involuntarily and in violation of his right to counsel. He claimed he had asked to speak to a lawyer, and had specifically told the detectives the name of a lawyer whose phone number he knew and whom he wished to call, but the detectives continued to question him and also refused his request to contact his mother.
He finally confessed, he said, because he was “getting tired” and wanted to get out of the interrogation and make a phone call, thinking that since he “didn’t do it anyways,” he could get the matter cleared up. He acknowledged signing a Miranda waiver, but said he did so well into the interrogation and only signed it because he was told to.
One of the two detectives testified, responding to most of the defendant’s testimony either by disputing Taylor’s version or saying he could not recollect the details. He said he didn’t recall Taylor asking to speak to a lawyer, said he did not ask for his mother before questioning began, and said he could not recall Taylor asking for his mother during questioning.
Also testifying was Long Beach attorney Arthur Close, now deceased. Close said he had received an early morning phone call at home from Taylor, who told him that he had just confessed to murder after police had questioned him for hours and refused to let him contact his mother or Close. Close also testified that Taylor related to him details of the interrogation.
Close said that Taylor was obviously upset and provided the details to him without prompting.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Sheldon denied the motion to suppress, saying he found the detective more credible than the defendant and did not believe the confession to be involuntary.
Taylor was subsequently convicted, and the Court of Appeal affirmed in an unpublished opinion. The state Supreme Court denied review, and a federal habeas petition was filed in 1997.
Senior U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Robert J. Kelleher denied the petition two years ago, but Kozinski, writing yesterday for the Ninth Circuit, said the confession should never have been admitted.
Kelleher, he said, erred by deferring to the factual findings of the state court. Those rulings are unworthy of deference, the appellate jurist insisted, because neither Sheldon nor the Court of Appeal weighed Close’s credibility.
This was “a major omission” and “a defect in the fact-finding process,” Kozinski declared, because “the very fact that Taylor made the call to the lawyer immediately upon being given access to a phone, and that the story he told Close (as recounted in Close’s testimony) was consistent with Taylor’s own testimony as to significant and unusual details, makes Close’s testimony highly probative.”
The attorney’s testimony, Kozinski said, strongly corroborated Taylor’s. And given that one of the two detectives never testified, and that the one who did testified ambiguously or claimed a lack of recollection as to key points, the confession should have been found to have been coerced and/or obtained in violation of the right to counsel or the right to silence, the judge concluded.
Kozinski pointed out in a footnote that under California Supreme Court precedent, a juvenile’s request to contact a parent is deemed an invocation of the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Kozinski went on to say that the erroneous admission of the confession was prejudicial. The rest of the evidence against Taylor was “paper-thin,”, and the jury did not have the opportunity to independently determine whether the confession was legitimate because the judge did not allow Close to testify at trial, Kozinski said.
Senior Judge Thomas G. Nelson and visiting Judge Jane Restani of the Court of International Trade concurred in the opinion.
The case was argued in the Court of Appeals by Sung B. Park of Van Nuys for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General Deborah J. Chuang for the prosecution.
The case is Taylor v. Maddox, 02-55560.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company