Sunday, May 05, 2013

Withholding treatment for gunshot contributes to coerced confession

Debra J. Wilson won in State v. Garcia, No. 104,998 (Kan. April 26, 2013), obtaining a new trial in a Shawnee County felony murder prosecution.  The KSC summarized the facts regarding interrogations as follows:
Initially, Garcia denied that he knew Fernandez or that he was involved in any robbery. He subsequently admitted knowing Fernandez and acknowledged that he was at the scene of the shooting. But for most of the interview he continued to deny any involvement in the robbery. Instead, Garcia's version of events was that he tried to intervene when he saw Vega attempting to abduct Buck into a van, but someone began shooting and wounded Garcia, prompting him to flee the scene. During the interview, Garcia requested medical attention a number of times, but the officers said that he would have to wait for medical treatment or pain medication [for a gunshot would] until the interrogation was complete and Garcia had done "what you know is the right thing to do." The law enforcement officers refused to accept that Garcia was rescuing Buck and repeatedly urged him to admit to participating in the robbery and to be a witness against Fernandez, the shooter, in order to avoid being charged with felony murder. At one point, an officer told Garcia that the district attorney was present outside of the interrogation room. The interrogating officer initially refused Garcia's request to see his girlfriend, Malkawi, saying that Garcia first needed to tell the truth about what happened in his own words. When Garcia would not give that statement, the officer brought Malkawi into the interrogation room to tell Garcia that he would not be booked for murder if he admitted to the robbery. Garcia immediately admitted to participating in the robbery, albeit he provided no details on how the robbery was planned or executed. The interview concluded shortly thereafter, and Garcia was booked into jail on charges of both felony murder and robbery.
The KSC held that under the totality of the circumstances, any statements were not voluntarily obtained:
We discern that certain things are patently obvious from the words and actions of the law enforcement officers conducting Garcia's interrogation. First, the officers knew that Garcia had been shot in the foot with a firearm; that he probably still had the bullet inside his body; that he had not received professional medical treatment for the wound; and that he was experiencing pain from the injury at the time of the interrogation. Next, Garcia was not going to be provided any medical attention or pain relieving medication until the officers had completed their questioning and took him to the hospital to retrieve the bullet for evidence. Further, the officers appeared unlikely to complete their questioning until Garcia gave them the statement that they believed to be true, which was that Garcia participated in the robbery.
. . . .
Even for an accused with Garcia's prior experience with the legal system, the withholding of medical attention until the completion of the interrogation had to influence the ultimate decision to tell the police what they were asking to be told. Even if Garcia did not confess solely to obtain medical treatment, the tactic of withholding requested relief for an obviously painful untreated gunshot wound over the course of a several-hours-long interrogation was inherently coercive and must play a significant role in our totality-of-the-circumstances test. Indeed, one of the purposes of the exclusionary rule is to prevent inhumane and unacceptable interrogation techniques.
The KSC also held that the interrogators improperly promised leniency:
The foregoing exchange did not stop short of promising a benefit to Garcia in return for his confession to robbery. The promised benefit was clearly stated: "They're not going to book you for murder." That was the same carrot that the officers had been unsuccessfully dangling in front of Garcia for hours. But this time, it was delivered by someone that Garcia trusted, and the result was immediate: "All right, man, I did, I did try to rob that guy."
The promise concerned action to be taken by a public official, i.e., the law enforcement officer who would process Garcia into jail. The promise was one that would likely cause the accused to make a false statement to obtain the promised benefit, i.e., the ability to make a murder charge and accompanying life sentence go away would be a strong motivator for prevarication. Finally, although the promise was verbalized by Malkawi, she was obviously referring to the conduct of the police. Sergeant Volle told Garcia that he had talked with Malkawi and then he brought her into the interrogation room, imploring her: "Go ahead, explain to him. Help me help him." After Malkawi stated that "they" were not going to book Garcia for murder, the sergeant did not correct the statement. To the contrary, after Malkawi left the room, he pointed out to Garcia that he had been telling the truth all along. Regardless of whether the DA had made a charging decision, the arresting officer clearly had the apparent authority to fulfill the promise not to book Garcia for murder. In short, the promise in this case fits within the parameters of those promises that may be deemed to have rendered a confession involuntary.
The KSC held that the state had not argued that the improper admission of the statements was harmless and, in any case, the admission was not harmless. So, it ordered a new trial.

Here is coverage of the case in the Topeka Capital-Journal.

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