Monday, August 27, 2007

When A Defendant Asks For A Lawyer That's What It Means, Right?

State v. Harris, no. 05-1521 (Iowa Aug. 24, 2007)

The Cedar Rapids Fire Department responded to a burning auto and found the body of one Joseph Harris inside, who had died from three bullets in the head.

Jones and Kevin Harris, the defendant were rounded up, one sooner and the other later, and a detective from the Cedar Rapids Police Department questioned Kevin Harris, who admitted his role in the death and the coverup effort after some prodding. Kevin Harris stated that he'd witnessed Jones shoot the decedent and he'd torched the car out of fear that he was in for some of what the decedent had gotten.

Harris was charged with arson and obstruction, and he moved to suppress the admissions he'd made, on the basis that the interrogation had continued after he'd requested counsel and requested contact with his brother. The trial court overruled his motion to suppress evidence on both issues and he was convicted.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court and on further review, the Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals opinion, reversed the trial court's denial of the motion to suppress and remanded the case for a new trial.

The facts were these. After mirandizing Harris and questioning him for an hour, he said

"If I need a lawyer, tell me now."

That statement was not sufficient to invoke his right to an attorney and questioning continued.

Then, this colloquy occurred.

"I don't want to talk about it. We're going to do it with a lawyer. That's the way I got to go."

"You want to do it with a lawyer, is that what you're saying?"

"Yeah, because I don't understand all these questions."

There was further conversation about who Harris wanted to contact, and then this:

"You don't trust us enough to do it without a lawyer?"

The Court found that the entire course of the interrogation thereafter was inappropriate.
Harris had also asked to contact a family member and was denied. This too was found to require suppression of his statements.

In a footnote the court observes that there was other evidence to support the verdict but they could not say that the confession had no effect on the verdict.

The takehome from the case is clear. When the defendant has invoked the right to counsel, questioning must stop unless and until the defendant reinitiates further questioning on his own account.


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