Arundel case may update `Miranda'

High court to rule on whether a rights violation can be remedied

October 31, 2005|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

The nation's highest court will take up a high-profile Annapolis murder case tomorrow, looking at an issue that has the potential to alter police interrogations around the country.

Three years after an Annapolis businessman was fatally shot and run over by assailants in his carjacked sport utility vehicle, legal experts believe that the case of freed suspect Leeander Jerome "Sweater" Blake may provide the U.S. Supreme Court with the opportunity to re-examine, and possibly ease, a rule that has controlled interrogations since 1981.

At issue is whether police, after violating a suspect's already-invoked right to a lawyer, can repair the damage so that a suspect can initiate the questioning. Authorities say Blake implicated himself in the killing, but his statement to police was tossed out. A judge ruled that the damage caused by pressing him to change his mind about wanting a lawyer could not be undone.

Supporters of the landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling that compels police to advise suspects of their rights - known to many from TV police dramas - see the Blake case as an alarming threat to a suspect's right to have a lawyer. The protection establishes a clear line for what's allowed and what's not, they say.

But advocates for relaxing protections for suspects view the Annapolis case as a step toward bringing more balance to a justice system that they believe went too far in coddling criminal defendants. Rather, they say, there should be a gray area with circumstances that allow for remedying a violation of a suspect's right to an attorney.

A ruling, which would be made during this court term, could be affected by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has not been seen as friendly toward defendants.

O'Connor, who has said she will stay until her replacement is seated, will hear the case. But unless an opinion is issued quickly, she - and her vote - might be gone. That could leave the court split, 4-4. In that case, the justices could opt for new arguments so a new, ninth justice could participate.

The stakes are high for Blake, 20, because the decision will determine whether he is tried in the 2002 killing of Straughan Lee Griffin. If convicted, Blake could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Maryland attorney general's office turned to the high court because it was the only option left for trying Blake.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors unsuccessfully sought to reverse a judge's ruling that threw out Blake's statement. Under Maryland law at the time, prosecutors automatically lost the entire case upon losing the pretrial appeal.

The Blake case allows the high court to revisit Edwards v. Arizona, a 1981 descendant of the Miranda ruling that took the "you have the right to an attorney" protection one step further. It says that once a suspect asks for a lawyer, police must stop all questioning until a lawyer is present; they cannot prod the suspect to reconsider.

A defendant can change his mind. But that must be voluntary, and he must initiate the dialogue with police.

The question being argued tomorrow is whether, after police violate the rule, they can take corrective steps that erase their violation and allow courts to conclude the suspect voluntarily offered to talk to police. Many legal experts believe that the justices would not have taken the Blake case if some were not considering reining in suspects' rights.

"If the court allows this type of conduct, it will effectively gut the doctrine," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who says police would use it as a "good cop-bad cop" end-run around Miranda.

Police would have nothing to lose by violating a suspect's rights, he said, because if a judge suppressed the resulting statement, they'd be no worse off than if they hadn't gone after it.

After all, said University of Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar, the point of interrogation is "to make the suspect believe he has got to talk his way out of a jail."

But others say that it is more reasonable to allow police to preserve the possibility of obtaining a valid and voluntary confession even after a violation of a suspect's rights - a violation that is not major and is subsequently repaired.

"It's not unheard of that some young cowboy won't walk by the booking cage and say something to someone in there. Whatever it is, it is never helpful," said Dennis Slocumb, vice president of the International Union of Police Associations. "It is your responsibility to correct him."

"I think they have to be given the opportunity to fix mistakes," said Joshua Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor and an officer of the National District Attorneys Association.

Issues stemming from Miranda warnings are perennials at a Supreme Court that, legal experts say, has grown increasingly hardened against criminal suspects.

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