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Continuing conversation voids first-degree murder conviction

Maryland’s top court has overturned a first-degree murder conviction because a sheriff’s lieutenant kept talking to the suspect after he said he wanted a lawyer.

The lieutenant continued to talk to Charles Robert Phillips for five to 10 minutes, telling him that he “wanted to get [Phillips’] side of the story” but they couldn’t talk any more unless Phillips changed his mind about his Miranda rights.

That was a violation of “one of Miranda’s many children, Edwards v. Arizona,” retired Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote for the Court of Appeals on Friday.

Under Edwards, once a suspect requests a lawyer, all questioning must cease until a lawyer is made available or “the accused himself initiates further communication conversations with the police,” the Supreme Court held in 1981.

“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,” Wilner wrote for the Court of Appeals.

However, when those rights have not been waived, “that kind of inducement, in the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary,” generally will render the resulting statements inadmissible, Wilner wrote.

Phillips was arrested six days after William Nibblett was found stabbed to death in his Pocomoke City home.

While Phillips initially waived his Miranda rights, he would not discuss any involvement in the killing. So, the detective questioning him, Lieutenant Michael McDermott of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, kept the conversation centered on Phillips’ interests for about 45 minutes. According to the Court of Appeals, McDermott was building up a rapport with Phillips.

However, when another detective entered the room and “became confrontational” and “somewhat accusatory,” Phillips asked for a lawyer.

McDermott asked the second detective to leave, then set out to undo the damage. He advised Phillips “that his invocation of the right to counsel ‘meant I couldn’t speak to him regarding this case’ and that ‘if he decided he wanted to talk and he wanted to tell the story to me that he could do that. Alls [sic] he had to do was say that he wanted to, that he wanted to reaffirm that he didn’t want counsel, and that I could talk to him.’”

Phillips “‘sat there and thought about it’ and decided that he did want to continue talking,” Wilner wrote.

The detectives then took a taped statement of Phillips saying that, while arguing with Nibblett over money Nibblett owed him, Phillips had taken a knife away from Nibblett and Nibblett “ran into” the knife.

Prior to trial, the circuit court denied Phillips’ motion to suppress the statement. A Worcester County jury found him guilty of murder and armed robbery, and he was sentenced to life plus 20 years. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed but remanded on a sentencing question.

Phillips sought review by the Court of Appeals, which heard argument in the case on Jan. 5.

In reversing and remanding the case for a new trial, the court reviewed the state and federal cases decided in the three decades since Edwards. It concluded the five- to 10-minute conversation after Phillips asked for an attorney was the “functional equivalent of an impermissible continuing interrogation, dooming to suppression, in the State’s case-in-chief, any ensuing inculpatory statement.”

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Charles Robert Phillips v. State, CA No. 58, Sept. Term 2011. Argued Jan. 5, 2012. Decided March 16, 2012. Reported. Opinion by Wilner, J., retired, spec. assigned.

Issue:

Did the lower court err in denying a motion to suppress statements taken from a suspect who had invoked his right to counsel five to 10 minutes earlier?

Holding:

Yes, reversed. The continuing conversation in this case was the functional equivalent to interrogation under Edwards v. Arizona, mandating suppression in the state’s case in chief.

Counsel:

Asst. PD Mark Colvin for petitioner; Asst. AG Daniel J. Jawor for respondent.

RecordFax #12-0316-20.