- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2010

As police grilled him about a 2000 fatal shooting in Michigan, Van Chester Thompkins remained virtually silent for nearly three hours until one of the officers asked him about God.

“Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” the officer asked Thompkins, according to court documents.

Thompkins’ answer was unequivocal: “Yes.”

Prosecutors used that single incriminating statement against Thompkins, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He subsequently argued that his silence throughout the interrogation should have indicated to police that he was invoking his Miranda rights against self-incrimination.

The court shot down Thompkins’ argument in a narrow ruling Tuesday that essentially said simply remaining silent is far different from invoking the Miranda rights to remain silent.

“Thompkins did not invoke his right to remain silent and stop the questioning,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “The police, moreover, were not required to obtain a waiver of Thompkins’ right to remain silent before interrogating him.”

Justice Kennedy, a frequent swing vote on the court, was joined in his opinion by the four members of the court’s conservative wing — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a blistering dissent that the high court’s decision is at odds with precedents in other Miranda cases that put the burden on prosecutors to prove that defendants have waived their rights. She wrote that the ruling also creates an odd paradox for criminal suspects.

“Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent — which, counterintuitively, requires them to speak,” she wrote. “At the same time, suspects will be legally presumed to have waived their rights even if they have given no clear expression of their intent to do so.”

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent was joined by the other three members of the court’s liberal wing — Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens.

For nearly 45 years, so-called “Miranda warnings” have played central roles in criminal law.

The rights were created by a 1966 Supreme Court case — Miranda v. Arizona — that requires police to inform a suspect that they have the right not to answer questions because what they say can be used against them in court. Police also are required to inform suspects that they have a right to an attorney and that one can be provided at no charge if the suspect cannot afford to pay.

The stakes involved are high as the failure to properly follow Miranda can lead to incriminating statements made by a suspect being kept out of evidence at trial.

In Thompkins’ case, police had tracked him to Ohio a year after a shooting outside a mall in Southfield, Mich., left Samuel Morris dead from multiple gunshot wounds. While in custody, according to court documents, police informed Thompkins of his Miranda rights, though he refused to sign a form indicating that he understood them.

For the next several hours in an 8-foot-by-10-foot interrogation room, two police officers peppered Thompkins with questions.

Police testified later that Thompkins said little. At one point, he declined an offer of a peppermint from one of the officers; he also remarked that the chair he was “sitting in was hard.”

According to court documents, about two hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, one of the detectives asked Thompkins whether he believed in God. Thompkins said “yes as his eyes welled with tears,” which lead to the incriminating statement about feeling guilty for shooting Mr. Morris.

Thompkins argued unsuccessfully to have the statement barred from evidence during his trial in state court. He also unsuccessfully challenged the statement during his subsequent state court appeals.

A federal district court rejected Thompkins’ argument as part of a federal habeas corpus appeal. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati disagreed, ruling that his “persistent silence for nearly three hours in response to questioning and repeated invitations to tell his side of the story offered a clear and unequivocal message to the officers: Thompkins did not wish to waive his rights.”

The Supreme Court overturned that decision Tuesday.

“If an ambiguous act, omission or statement could require police to end the interrogation, police would be required to make difficult decisions about an accused’s unclear intent and face the consequence of suppression ‘if they guess wrong,’” Justice Kennedy wrote. “Suppression of a voluntary confession in these circumstances would place a significant burden on society’s interest in prosecuting criminal activity.”

Justice Sotomayor countered that the decision “turns Miranda upside down.”

“At best, the court today creates an unworkable and conflicting set of presumptions that will undermine Miranda’s goal of providing concrete constitutional guidelines for law enforcement agencies and courts to follow,” she wrote. “At worst, it overrules … an essential aspect of the protections Miranda has long provided for the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide