Laws provide leeway while interrogating suspects, experts say Innocent teen's time in jail raises issues about power of police

November 21, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Police can lie to suspects, mislead their relatives and keep juveniles from seeing their parents during an interrogation, legal experts say.

The release of Allen Jacob Chesnet, a teen-ager from North East freed this week six months after he was charged in the killing of a neighbor, highlights the importance of the tools police use when they interrogate suspects.

Prosecutors in Cecil County dropped murder charges against the 16-year-old suspect Tuesday after they disclosed what they had known for months: that blood in the home of the victim, Beulah G. Honaker, 52, matched neither the victim's nor Allen's.

Prosecutors say Allen, who, according to his family, reads at a second-grade level and is learning disabled, remained locked up because he confessed shortly after the May 26 slaying.

But his parents and his attorney say the confession was coerced.

They say, and prosecutors agree, that the confession came after 15 hours of interrogation by state police at their North East barracks during which no lawyer was present.

State police say the interrogation lasted less than six hours and that Allen waived his constitutional rights before making the confession.

But experts say that even with the safeguards spelled out by the Supreme Court's Miranda decision in 1966, police have a lot of leeway in how they handle interrogations.

Miranda ensures that a suspect is informed of his right to remain silent and have a lawyer present during questioning.

Douglas L. Colbert, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Maryland, says suspects often waive their rights because the Miranda warnings often don't sink in when they hear them.

"If you don't have a lawyer there, what they're telling you has very little meaning," Colbert said.

Legal experts say many suspects, particularly juveniles, end up waiving their rights, handing police a number of tools.

"They lie, they manipulate, they repeatedly accuse you of committing the crime. They make you feel that your situation is hopeless and that it will only be improved by confessing," Richard Leo, a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, says of police.

Stanley Z. Fisher, who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure at Boston University Law School, says nothing guarantees juveniles added legal protections during police interrogations.

"Someone that age, I think the reality is that a lot of these kids don't understand these rights, but when it comes to interrogations the law treats them as adults," Fisher said.

Baltimore County Circuit Court Chief Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr. said judges weigh the age of a juvenile when ruling on the admissibility of a confession.

He said police are not required to contact the parents of a juvenile brought in for questioning.

But if the police don't contact the parents, the judge will LTC consider that, along with the youth's age and how he was treated, when ruling on a confession's admissibility, DeWaters said.

"It's a weighing of factors -- the length of the interrogation, whether he was given something to eat, whether he was deprived of sleep, all of these things," he said.

Legal experts said the key to whether a suspect's confession is admissible is often whether the waiver of the Miranda rights was made "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently."

"The bottom line is that once that waiver is given, there's really not much control on police interrogations," Fisher said. "The key [for the defense] is to get what is said thrown out of court."

Colbert praised the way Allen's public defender handled the case, but says Allen probably spent months in jail because the lawyer wasn't assigned until long after the youth had been charged.

"What we need is a criminal justice system that assigns lawyers to the accused at the earliest possible time that he appears in court," Colbert said.

Barbara Mello, who teaches criminal procedure and constitutional law at the University of Baltimore Law School, said the state police enjoy qualified immunity from many types of civil suits.

But she noted that Allen may sue under federal statutes and collect damages for constitutional violations.

"You have a right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and it sounds like that's what a plaintiff would try to apply here," she said.

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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