Use of confession at trial challenged

December 18, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

ELLICOTT CITY -- Anything the 16-year-old accused of killing a home teacher told police about her death should not be used as evidence against him, his attorney said yesterday.

Public Defender Richard Bernhardt told Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. that police interrogated Alton Romero Young without first advising him of his constitutional rights.

Howard County Police Detective Lee Lachman testified Tuesday that Mr. Young confessed three times on March 26 to killing 57-year-old Shirley Mullinix, his home teacher, in his apartment the day before.

He blamed the crime on drugs and pressure to do homework, the detective said.

Mr. Young, who has been charged as an adult with first-degree murder, is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 20.

When making arrests, police must tell suspects that they have a right to remain silent, that anything they say may be used against them, that they have a right to an attorney, and that if they are indigent, an attorney will be provided for them.

Police did that, but not until after they had taken Mr. Young into custody, Mr. Bernhardt said. He said police must also alert suspects of their rights when conducting a so-called "custodial interrogation" -- one in which the suspect is not free to leave.

The issue being debated in Circuit Court yesterday was whether Mr. Young was free to leave or stop the questioning before he gave his taped and written confessions.

Mr. Young testified yesterday that after questioning him at his home on March 26, Detective Lachman asked him to go to police headquarters to fill out a witness form that the officer had failed to bring with him.

He also testified that a second officer accompanied him to his bedroom and stayed with him while he changed his clothes for the trip to police headquarters.

The only reason the officer went to the bedroom was to ensure that Mr. Young would not escape out of the bedroom door to the patio, Mr. Bernhardt said.

"They didn't want to put the suspect on notice [that he was a suspect] -- they didn't say that," Mr. Bernhardt said. "They said they didn't have a witness form. They lied to Mr. Young, and they lied to his mother."

Mr. Young and his mother, Winopa Addison, testified that they did not think he was a suspect when police notified her at work that they were taking her son to police headquarters. "Her only concern was that [Mr. Young] have a ride back home, and they assured her of that," Mr. Bernhardt said.

Mrs. Addison testified that if she had known her son was a suspect, she would have told him to stay home and say nothing until a family friend who is a minister could have come to the house to be with him. Mr. Young testified that he would have obeyed his mother.

Prosecutor Joseph Murtha said that because of previous experiences, Mr. Young and his mother were familiar with police procedures

Mr. Young testified that the officers were wearing civilian clothes, treated him with respect, and never used force of any kind when they questioned him at his home and at police headquarters.

In addition, Mr. Young was told before he was given his constitutional warning that he might have been the last person to see Mrs. Mullinix alive, yet "he continued to cooperate," Mr. Murtha said.

"He is the first person who says, 'Now -- am I under arrest?' " Mr. Murtha said. "That implies knowledge that he wasn't under arrest [before that time] and is reflective of the understanding that he was free to leave."

Mr. Bernhardt disagreed. "Mr. Young has been lied to, browbeaten, argued with, and confronted after repeated denials until he confessed," Mr. Bernhardt said.

Because of other evidence, "the state would not be forced to abandon its prosecution" of Mr. Young if the confessions are suppressed, Mr. Bernhardt said.

The court needs to advise the Police Department that constitutional rights exist, Mr. Bernhardt said. Police cannot get around those rights and then bring them in at a later time to "clean up the air," he said.

Judge Sybert said that he would rule -- "hopefully, within the week" -- on whether Mr. Young's statements to police can be admitted.

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