Friday, June 11, 2010

Police Coerce Suspect to Confess But Court Refuses to Instruct Jury Accordingly

Contreras v. State - a long opinion, but a great read.

Let me set the scene.  A baby is dead.  Appellant was the only person babysitting when the baby died.  The police invite Appellant to make a statement. They give him his Miranda warnings and he waives.  Appellant states that the baby fell off the couch, but was alive and well when he put her to bed.  The medical examiner then conducts an autopsy and discovers what appears to be severe chest wounds caused by blunt force trauma.  The police then invite Appellant to make another statement.  They, once again, read him his Miranda warnings...this is where the story diverges.

According to the detective, during the second interview, "appellant never invoked any of his rights." Additionally, "no threats or promises were made to appellant, nor did the officers threaten any members of appellant’s family."  The Appellant then confessed to murdering the baby.

 On the contrary, Appellant testified that the detectives "kept yelling and jumping in, banging his hand on the desk" and "getting in Appellant's face."  Appellant further testified that they threatened to blame the entire thing on Appellant's wife if he did not confess, saying "C'mon, you're not going to let your wife go to jail for something you did" and "Well, if it wasn't you, then your wife must have done it."  Appellant, who wasn't under arrest at the time, then asked to speak with his family members and the detectives declined to let him go.  Appellant then said, "I need to speak with an attorney," to which the detectives responded thusly:

Come on, Saul. You’re just being selfish. We can’t let you do that. If you do that, then we won’t be able to talk to the Assistant D.A.’s on your behalf. We know you have a clean record. We know you’re a good guy. With your clean record, you’ll probably get a bond and be out by Monday, and then you can straighten all this out.
Finally, Appellant testified, the officers' tactics caused him to confess:
Like I said, I was tired, exhausted. I didn’t want my wife to go to jail. I didn’t want them to take our kids away. I wanted to get out of that room. I wanted to talk to my family, and they weren’t letting me do that until I said what they were saying.
Despite the conflicting nature of the testimony, the trial court refused to provide an appropriate instruction to the jury pursuant to Article 38.23 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides, in relevant part:
No evidence obtained by an officer or other person in violation of any provisions of the Constitution or laws of the State of Texas, or of the Constitution or laws of the United States of America, shall be admitted in evidence against the accused on the trial of any criminal case.

In any case where the legal evidence raises an issue hereunder, the jury shall be instructed that if it believes, or has a reasonable doubt, that the evidence was obtained in violation of the provisions of this Article, then and in such event, the jury shall disregard any such evidence so obtained.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals instructs that "the trial court has a duty to give an article 38.23 instruction sua sponte (on its own) if 3 requirements are met:
  1. Evidence heard by the jury raises an issue of fact (true in this case); 
  2. The evidence on that fact is affirmatively contested (true again); and
  3. The contested factual issue is material to the lawfulness of the challenged conduct in obtaining the statement claimed to be involuntary (bingo).
Accurately citing this standard, the lower court (8th Court of Appeals - El Paso) simply said that it was undisputed that Appellant received Miranda warnings and completely disregarded the other alleged egregious conduct by the detectives. 

Not willing to sweep such unconsionable interrogation tactics under the rug, the CCA reversed the judgment of the lower court, holding that the evidence did raise a fact issue regarding whether a threat to arrest and prosecute Appellant's wife rendered his confession involuntary under due process and that the trial judge should have so instructed the jury under article 38.23.  The only problem now is that the CCA remanded the case back to the 8th Court for a harm analysis, so we can bet that this conviction will stand - a shallow and temporary victory for the Appellant in the interim.

An interesting side note - Presiding Judge Keller went off on a bit of a tangent on page 26 of the opinion regarding the logical disconnect between a Miranda challenge and a constitutional challenge under article 38.23.  Not exactly germane to the case, but interesting nonetheless.