Court nears Miranda ruling

Justices review suspect's rights after an arrest

Crucial confessions

June 25, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Howard County Police Cpl. Ellsworth Jones needed a confession, a statement from a grandmother accused of hiring a man to kill her daughter-in-law.

But Jones ran into a brick wall when Emilia D. Raras invoked her right to speak to an attorney one afternoon last August, ending her interrogation.

An hour later, though, police said Raras approached Jones and begged to speak with him again. Raras' words that day, tape-recorded by police, would eventually become the linchpin of her conviction.

In the next few days, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in a case that involves the requirement to warn defendants of their right to remain silent and speak with a lawyer.

That impending ruling, which legal scholars say could be one of the most significant in decades, has focused attention on how police obtain confessions and other statements from suspects - some of law enforcement's most powerful weapons.

And in Howard County, three major cases demonstrate how critical a role defendants' words play in successful prosecutions when detectives get suspects to waive their rights.

In November 1998, Sara J. Williamson Raras, 35, was at her Elkridge home on Meadowfield Court when someone plunged through her front window and attacked her with a knife, killing her.

For months, a frustrated Jones and other officers fruitlessly tracked down leads but could not find the killer. Then they got lucky. Last summer, a Baltimore County jail inmate ratted on a cellmate, Ardale D. Tickles.

Police would tape-record a conversation between their informant and Tickles, who revealed that a co-worker had hired him to kill the woman in Howard County. The elder Raras, the mother-in-law of the victim, worked with Tickles.

But the evidence was murky at best. Police realized they needed Raras to talk, and that duty fell to Jones, who had worked the case from the beginning. Before entering the room with Raras, Jones said he was slightly nervous and was thinking about the significance and brutality of the slaying. "It weighs on you, whether somebody will give you a statement or not," he said.

After being advised of her rights, Raras said she wanted to speak with a lawyer. That ended the interrogation.

"There was a letdown from that," Jones said. "Whether it's an admission, a denial, a lie, anything. Here we had nothing to work with. You are kind of stuck with everything you already had."

Frustrated, Jones took Raras back to a cell, where she soon approached the detective and asked him if she could talk to "clarify" something. Jones initially refused, but eventually took her back into the room.

There, he painstakingly went through Raras' rights to remain silent and to have an attorney, stopping her from speaking several times until he had finished.

In another room, Lt. Stephen Prozeralik and two prosecutors were listening over a speaker system, silently urging Jones to get on with it.

"He overdid it," Prozeralik said he was thinking at the time. "We were getting panicky. `She waived her rights - let's go on.' "

Raras then admitted she knew Tickles and hired him to seek revenge but not kill her daughter-in-law.

"In fact, I thought he's not going to kill her," Raras told Jones and another detective. "Because he told me he is just going to stone the house. As a revenge. For me."

Raras also said she felt slighted by her daughter-in-law, that it would be worth killing someone who "spit" in her face. "Showing disrespect for a mother is death," Raras said.

Though Raras' words fell short of a confession, jurors, who spent more than a week hearing evidence, said they relied on the statements to convict her.

At one point during deliberations, they even wrote down on a chalkboard many of Raras' comments to see whether they implicated her in the crime, said Donald Miles, 65, of Ellicott City.

"If it had not been for her statements, we might not have convicted her," Miles said. "Without that tape, I don't think we would have reached a unanimous decision."

Raras' attorney, Clarke F. Ahlers, is appealing the conviction partly on grounds that his client asked for an attorney several times during both interrogations and police wouldn't let her contact one. He also says that police were less than clear when they read his client her rights.

A judge ruled in a pretrial hearing that Raras' demands for a lawyer were ambiguous and police were "exhaustive" in their discussions of Raras' rights.

Police and prosecutors say they have learned to work around "Miranda warnings," which require police to inform suspects of their right to an attorney and to remain silent while being questioned. Those warnings are required under a 1966 Supreme Court decision, Miranda vs. Arizona.

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