WASHINGTON – U.S. Supreme Court justices posed a series of ‘what if’ scenarios to Maryland lawyers Tuesday in an attempt to determine when police have gone too far in questioning a suspect who has asked for an attorney, and whether the statements gained can be used in court.
“Suppose the police are twisting his arm behind his back,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, would you call that voluntary?
The justices tried to determine how a suspect could make a voluntary statement after the police acted improperly.
“Is there any circumstance under which that (police) overreach can be cured?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
Provide the suspect with a lawyer or do something to put the suspect back into the same position he was in before being exposed to the police’s overstep, said Kenneth Ravenell, lawyer for Leeander Jerome Blake, the man at the center of the case. If his lawyers are successful before the court, he likely would never stand trial.
Blake and his friend Terrence Tolbert, who has since been convicted, were charged in the 2002 murder of Straughan Lee Griffin in Annapolis.
The Maryland Court of Appeals found in 2004 that police illegally interrogated Blake when they questioned him without a lawyer after he requested one.
That finding was based on the fact that just a half hour before the questioning a detective delivered a list of charges that erroneously included “DEATH” as the possible sentence, and then an officer said in a loud, confrontational voice: “I bet you want to talk now, huh?”
The comment may have been improper, said Kathryn Grill Graeff an assistant attorney general for the state, but it was negated by the detective’s immediate correction: “No, he doesn’t want to talk to us. He already asked for a lawyer. We cannot talk to him now.”
“We have that Detective Johns then pushed him out of the cell,” Graeff said as she threw her arms out in a pushing motion.
All of this, done in front of Blake, Graeff said, made it clear to him that the questioning had stopped and he didn’t have to talk to the police. Therefore, when Blake agreed to talk to the police it was a voluntary decision.
The police did not do enough to negate the officer’s improper statement; Ravenell said when it was his turn to address the court, so Blake’s decision to speak to them without a lawyer could not have been voluntary.
The court will make a decision in Maryland v. Blake by July and their ruling could refine the 1981 Edwards v. Arizona decision in which the court said that police must stop all forms of interrogation once a suspect requests a lawyer.
This ruling clarified the landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision in which the court found that self-incriminating statements made by suspects in police custody are only valid if the suspects have been properly informed of their rights.
If the court finds that there can be a cure for police oversteps, Ravenel said later, then the police will make it a practice to push the limits with suspects and then take curative steps.
“No citizen should be happy with police abuses of citizen rights,” he said.
Blake has not been tried for Griffin’s murder, pending a final decision in this case, and, due to a Maryland law that has since been changed, cannot be tried by the state if the Supreme Court rejects the state’s argument.
Ravenell asked the court to decide the case without considering whether or not Blake will be able to stand trial.
To those on both sides of the case, the question of whether or not Blake, who is now free, will be tried is of great importance.
Griffin’s sister, Linda, tearfully spoke outside the court afterwards: “I think it would be horrific if there was no trial.”