Greater Good

LINDA R. MONK

July 02, 1993|By LINDA R. MONK

Rockville. -- Laura Houghteling was murdered last October about a mile from my house. Her body was found the other day about a half-mile from here. Laura's death has shaken this quiet suburban community on the border between Bethesda and Rockville. For weeks after the young Bethesda woman disappeared, I compulsively double-checked the locks on my doors and windows. Now that Laura's murderer has confessed in open court, I find myself even more troubled by how the Montgomery County police handled the case.

Hadden Clark, a homeless man with a history of mental illness who did some part-time gardening for the Houghteling family, became the lead suspect in the case. He knew Laura's mother would be out of town the weekend of Laura's murder. He had also expressed a sexual interest in Laura to one of his acquaintances.

Clark was initially represented by a Montgomery County public defender, who advised him to remain silent and who instructed Montgomery County police not to question Clark without his attorney present. Nonetheless, on November 6, the suspect was questioned for seven hours about the Houghteling case.

The videotape of the interrogation revealed that Clark asked for his lawyer more than 100 times. Besides denying Clark his right to see his attorney, police officers threatened him with ''death in the gas chamber'' and taunted him ''to do the manly thing and kill himself.''

When confronted about their behavior by the public defender, the officers responded that Clark did not meet the financial guidelines of the public defender's office, so they did not consider the public defender to be his lawyer. Whereupon the public defender informed the police that such decisions were to be made by his boss, not by Montgomery County Police, and that it was common practice for a defendant to be represented by the public defender while financial eligibility was still being determined.

The Fifth Amendment states that no person shall be compelled ''to be a witness against himself.'' This is the heart of our accusatory system of justice; the government must find evidence to prove its case. In an inquisitional system the defendant can be forced to testify against himself. Such a system lends itself to abuse because it puts a premium on confessions. Torture can become a way to get the job done.

In this regard, the inquisitional system is more efficient than the accusatory system. In the words of an English legal scholar, ''It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper into a poor devil's eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence.'' But in America, as the Supreme Court has ruled, ''Our accusatory system of criminal justice demands that the government seeking to punish an individual produce the evidence against him by its own independent labors, rather than by the cruel, simple [means] of compelling it from his own mouth.''

For this reason, coerced confessions are not admissible as evidence. In Miranda v. Arizonac (1966), the Supreme Court held that unless a defendant has been informed of his constitutional rights to remain silent and to an attorney, police questioning of a suspect in custody is inherently coercive. Wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren: ''It is obvious that such an interrogation environment is created for no other purpose than to subjugate the individual to the will of the examiner.''

Montgomery County police clearly violated Miranda while questioning Hadden Clark, and they knew it. They also knew that any evidence discovered in that interrogation would be inadmissible. Trying to defend their actions, the police later stated that they believed they already had enough evidence to convict Clark and purposely chose to question him without advising him of his rights.

Detective Richard Fallin, the chief investigator in the Houghteling murder, testified that police abandoned their normal procedures for the ''greater good'' of convincing Clark to disclose the location of Laura's body. Police also wanted to find the body of Michelle Dorr, a 6-year-old who disappeared in 1986 near where the suspect then lived. Clark made no incriminating statements in the seven-hour interrogation.

Detective Fallin's invocation of ''greater good'' is especially ironic given that Laura's family later insisted that disclosing the location of her body not be a factor in negotiating a plea bargain with Clark. Clearly, they wanted to assure that Laura's murderer was punished, whether or not her body was ever found. Clark eventually pleaded guilty to the murder and voluntarily revealed where her body was hidden.

To his credit, Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew Sonner is consulting with the police chief to make sure such incidents don't happen again. ''This is atypical behavior,'' Mr. Sonner said, ''and I want to make sure it says atypical.''

Frankly, I'm not as sanguine as Mr. Sonner. When a police officer decides to serve a ''greater good'' than the Bill of Rights, we're all in trouble. Where law enforcement is concerned, there is no ''greater good'' than the Constitution. That's why it is the supreme law of the land.

We ask a lot of our police officers. Faced with the depths of society's depravity, they must uphold our highest values. But if XTC

they don't, we're no different than the Hadden Clarks of the world. Laura Houghteling knew that. As a student, she wrote that each of us has some evil within. The Bill of Rights is how we try to keep that evil in check.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide,'' which won the American Bar Association's Gavel Award.

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