Under a 1966 Supreme Court ruling in the case of a worker named Ernesto Miranda, a suspect has the right to remain silent when interrogated by cops and the right to an attorney, including one paid by the state if the defendant cant afford it. The police must inform the person of their rights in advance of questioning. Failure to do so makes any information obtained inadmissible in court.
The Supreme Court specifically noted in the Miranda ruling the number of cases it had heard of cops coercing confessions through beatings and other forms of intimidation.
In the current case, Van Chester Thompkins was arrested on suspicion of murder in Southfield, Michigan, and read his Miranda rights. He chose to remain silent and did not sign a waiver of his Miranda rights. The cops, however, proceeded to badger him with questions for nearly three hours. Thompkins did not answer.
Finally, in response to three questions: Do you believe in God? Do you pray to God? and Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down? Thompkins said yes. This one word became the evidence used at his trial to convict him of first-degree murder. A federal court subsequently ruled that using Thompkinss comment was inadmissible in court. But the Supreme Court reversed the ruling.
Writing for the majority of the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, The fact that Thompkins made a statement about three hours after receiving a Miranda warning does not overcome the fact that he engaged in a course of conduct indicating waiver. He also said cops are not required to obtain a waiver of a suspects right to remain silent before interrogating him.
In a column posted on huffingtonpost.com, Charles Weisselberg, a professor of law at UC Berkeley, wrote, The Court has formally transformed Miranda from a rule aimed at protecting suspects to one that protects police. Mirandas safeguards for suspects are now mostly symbolic. So long as officers give warnings, their interrogation practices will be largely immune from any legal challenge.
Weisselberg also noted that as solicitor general, Elena Kagan, President Barack Obamas nominee to the Supreme Court, filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Justice Department backing the use of the evidence obtained from interrogating Thompkins.
The Supreme Court decision comes a few months after it had ruled that police can conduct a second round of questioning of suspects who had invoked their Miranda rights as long as two weeks had passed since their release from custody.
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