Release Date:  June 1, 2010
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Decision in Berghuis v. Thompkins announced today

A 5 to 4 United States Supreme Court decision announced today has rejected a murderer’s claim that his confession should not have been introduced at trial because police had violated his Miranda rights.  At issue in the case of Berghuis v. Thompkins is whether a suspect’s initial silence during questioning by police must be interpreted as a decision to invoke his right not to talk to police without an attorney present, even though he eventually did answer questions later in the interview.  While the Michigan Supreme Court held that the defendant had waived his rights, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction, concluding that he had clearly indicated that he did not want to talk to police.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined this case to encourage a decision reversing the Sixth Circuit’s ruling.  “In the 1966 Miranda case, the Supreme Court created an artificial rule that is not really in the Constitution. Today, the Court placed some reasonable limits on that rule,” said the Foundation’s Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.  “The rule that really is in the Constitution, that no person may be compelled to be a witness against himself, is not changed by today’s decision.”

In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “In sum, a suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police.” 

The crime occurred on January 10, 2000, when, according to court records, Samuel Morris and his friend Frederick France were driving through a strip mall parking lot in Southfield, Michigan, at around 9:00 p.m.  Morris stopped the car when a group of young men, including Thompkins, walked in front of it and began staring at them.

Morris and France exchanged words with the group and then started to drive away.  Thompkins and the other men followed in a blue and white van, and then pulled alongside.  Thompkins, who was seated in the van’s front passenger seat, reportedly said to Morris, “What you say, Big Dog,” immediately before firing several shots into Morris’s car.  Morris died of multiple gunshot wounds, but France survived.  While France was in the hospital, police showed him a photograph taken by a mall security camera showing three men at the crime scene.  France identified Thompkins as the shooter and the other two as the driver of the van and a passenger.  While police were able to locate the other two men, Thompkins fled to Ohio.  Over a year later, he was arrested in Columbus, where he gave police several false pieces of identification and claimed that his name was Detniuan Ishia Reed.  After Thompkins, who had several prior convictions, was identified by his fingerprints, two Michigan police detectives met him at the Ohio jail for questioning.

Before questioning Thompkins, a detective read him his Miranda rights.  Thompkins did not sign the standard form indicating that he understood his rights, and he did not ask for an attorney or tell the detectives that he would not answer their questions.  For nearly three hours, his responses to questions were limited to “yeah,” “no,” or “I don’t know,” and occasionally nodding his head.  Finally, one of the detectives asked Thompkins, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?”  Thompkins answered, “yes” and lowered his eyes.

Prior to trial, Thompkins moved to suppress his confession, arguing that the questioning by police violated his Miranda rights.  After this motion was denied, Thompkins was tried on several charges related to the murder of Samuel Morris.  Evidence of guilt included:  physical evidence; testimony from a friend Thompkins told about the killing; testimony from the driver of the van, Eric Purifoy; the eyewitness testimony of France; and Thompkins’ confession.  In his defense, Thompkins claimed that Purifoy, identified by France as the driver of the van, was actually the shooter and that he (Thompkins) was an uninvolved passenger.  He was subsequently convicted of the murder and related charges and was sentenced to life in prison.

Thompkins’ conviction and sentence were upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals, and his appeal of that holding was denied by the state Supreme Court.  The appellate court rejected Thompkins’ claim that his initial silence during questioning indicated that he had invoked his Miranda rights.  The Federal District Court later denied the claim on habeas corpus.  Thompkins' luck changed when he appealed that holding to the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The court’s November 19, 2008 ruling overturned the conviction.  The federal court ruled that the state court’s decision was unreasonable and that federal law supported the conclusion that Thompkins’ behavior during questioning “offered a clear and unequivocal message to the officers:  Thompkins did not wish to waive his rights.”  The federal court also ruled that Thompkins’ defense attorney was ineffective because he failed to ask for a jury instruction limiting the jury’s consideration of Purifoy’s guilty-plea conviction.

When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to consider Michigan’s appeal, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation introduced a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, arguing that the Michigan appeals court decision to uphold Thompkins’ conviction was reasonable.

“The Supreme Court recognized the practical realities that the police face in dealing with suspects,” said Scheidegger.  “They don’t always answer the waiver question clearly. When they do not, the bright-line rule of Miranda should not apply, and the statement should be admissible as long as it is not compelled.”