The Counsellor's Corner
I have rarely found myself in agreement with court rulings as often as I have recently, and this happy trend continued last week when the Court of Appeal reversed the first-degree murder conviction of Dexter L. Myles because the police officers who arrested and interrogated him denied him his statutory right to his mother. That's right, not his lawyer but his mother.
About an hour into the interrogation, Myles requested the opportunity to call his mother, and the officers indicated they weren't going to permit him the telephone call until their questioning was concluded. The officers told him, "You can't dictate the terms as to how we're going to talk to you."
Other than his confession, the prosecution had very little in the way of evidence, and the Appellate Court found that the confession which followed Mr. Myles' denied request to call his mother required his conviction to be overturned.
The law in the State of California indicates that those who are arrested have the right to call "an attorney, a bailbondsman, or a relative immediately upon request."
At a pretrial hearing, the trial court judge had ruled differently, finding that the confession was admissible as the judge noted there is no case law that requires arresting police officers to stop an interrogation so the arrestee can call his mother. The Court of Appeal felt differently, however, indicating that the denial of Myles' statutory right to call his mother took place before he made his confession and had he been permitted to make the telephone call, he may well not have confessed.
In strongly worded language, the Court of Appeal found that the behavior of the police officers denied Myles his constitutional right to remain silent.
The Court found that Myles' statement to the police officers constituted "a clear, unequivocal refusal" to continue the interrogation. The Court further stated that once an individual has been given his Miranda Rights which permit him to remain silent, all questioning must end, and the Court held that "any statement taken after the person invokes his privilege [against self-incrimination] cannot be other than the product of compulsion." This includes the denial of the right to call one's mother.
Mr. Myles was convicted in 1996 of first-degree murder which arose out of an incident in which he allegedly held up a dry cleaning store and shot its owner to death. He was sentenced to life in state prison without the possibility of parole. This incident took place in South Central Los Angeles, and the District Attorney's office now has to decide whether or not they want to retry the case. As they now cannot use the confession and they never had much else, it is doubtful that this matter will be pursued.
So now we come to the key question here: Are our constitutional rights important enough that the defense of them may result in a murderer going free? My answer is a resounding YES. The rights that we have cannot be compromised, and our judicial system operates under the theory that it is better to allow 99 guilty people to go free than to have one innocent person put in jail. Yes, it is horrible to know that in all probability Myles committed the crime and may well commit another if he is freed; however, had the arresting officers done their job appropriately, we would not have this predicament.
The problem is not so much this case as what would happen were the Appellate Court to reach a different conclusion. We would then come to a "where does it stop" issue; how much can police officers get away with without there being consequences. In a previous column, I addressed the fact that the initial Miranda decision has been in many ways emasculated since it came down in 1966, and it is nice to see a ruling such as this.
As I often say during my own closing argument when handling the defense of a criminal matter: "If the prosecution wants you to convict my client in this case, is it too much to ask to have their agents, i.e. the police officers, comply with the law." In other words, if they want to convict someone of violating the law, is it too much to ask that in the attempt to procure the conviction, that they not violate the law themselves.
In this matter, the court realized that the application of the statute may well lead to a result that is not particularly popular, however the fundamental principal for which the statute stands is more important than the result in any one particular case.
The justices are to be applauded.
Charlie Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.