Court throws out murder conviction on Eastern Shore, says police violated Miranda protections

March 16, 2012|By Peter Hermann

On March 6, 2008, William Nibblett was stabbed to death in his own home in Pokomoke City. A Worcester County Circuit Court jury convicted Charles Robert Phillips of first-degree murder and armed robbery and sentenced him to life in prison.

But on Friday, the state's highest court sent the case back to trial with a blistering rebuke of local police and sheriff's deputies who the justices said ignored the suspect's request for an attorney and wrongfully kept him talking into a confession.

Read the full opinion here.

The judges, in a unanimous ruling, appear incredulous of having to explain what they deem the most basic part of criminal law:

Regrettably, most people in this country, we suspect, have, at best, little more than a vague familiarity with even the more important pronouncements of the United States Supreme Court. Nearly every competent person over the age of a toddler who has ever watched television knows the name Miranda, however.

They not only know the name, but, from watching a “gazillion” crime shows, they
correctly associate it with the requirement that, when the police detain a person for questioning in a custodial setting, they must inform the person of the right to remain silent, that anything the person says may be used in evidence, that the person has a right to consult with an attorney before responding to questioning, and that an attorney will be appointed if the person is indigent.

The ruling says detectives -- Lt. Michael McDermott of the Worcester County Sheriff's Office, and Scott Mitchell of the Pokomoke City Police Department -- tag-teamed the suspect during 45 minutes of interrogation.

One quizzed Phillips about his family, his tattoos, and then the other quickly switched to being confrontational, the old good cop bad cop routine. The court said the suspect signed a waiver agreeing to talk without his lawyer, a requirement under the Miranda ruling, but then changed his mind.

Instead of stopping, the court the detectives continued. McDermott told the court that just because Phillips exercised his right to remain silent, that didn't mean "I couldn't speak to him regarding this case and that if decided he wanted to talk and he wanted to tell me the story to me that he could do that."

And indeed Phillips did tell a story, confessing to confronting the victim over owed money, and then to grabbing the knife away from the victim "and that the victim 'ran into' the blade," according to the Court of Appeals ruling.

A Circuit Court Judge upheld Phillips' statement to police, ruling that he knew what he was doing when he talked. The state's highest court disagreed, though they wrote carefully to note that detectives can still use deception during questioning:

The message conveyed when the police, having first established a rapport with a suspect who has been arrested and may be facing imminent incarceration, tell the suspect that they want to hear his or her side of the story is that the police are trying to be fair and that dialogue may be helpful to the suspect. That, of course, is rarely the case in fact, but the objective, and sometimes the reality, is that the suspect will believe it to be so and will respond accordingly.

The record reveals that to have been the case here. Petitioner was not there as a neutral witness. He was a suspect in a murder. It is implicit from Detective McDermott’s testimony that, during the first conversation, petitioner was asked about the case and did not want to talk about his involvement. McDermott then switched to more general things and was proceeding nicely until Detective Mitchell barged into the room and temporarily “shut down your dialogue that you had been engaged in for about 45 minutes with the defendant.”

It was after petitioner invoked his right to an attorney that Detective McDermott told him that “I wanted to get his side of the story” – to send the soothing, but misleading message which apparently took root. We do not condemn the police for using legitimate tactics, including telling a suspect that they would like to hear his/her side of the story, in order to induce the suspect to respond to questions or make a statement, so long as the Miranda advisements have been given and the suspect has validly waived the right to remain silent and the right to consult with an attorney.

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