June 06, 2019 Feature

Miranda Memories

Peter D. Baird (Originally published Winter 1990)

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In a distant sense, the famous Miranda decision—Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)—started in 1637, on the eve of the English Civil War, with the arrest of a cantankerous young Puritan by the name of “Freeborn” John Lilburne. Charged with the importation of heretical and seditious books into England, Lilburne was taken to the Star Chamber for one of its indelicate interrogations. For his refusal “to take a legal oath” and “to answer truly,” Lilburne was whipped, pilloried, fined, and imprisoned. Griswold, The Fifth Amendment Today (Harvard Univ. Press 1955). Four years later, the House of Commons declared Lilburne’s treatment illegal, and the House of Lords indemnified him; the privilege against self-incrimination was born.

Ernesto Arturo Miranda most certainly had never heard of John Lilburne, but he was to become a remote, and perhaps the most famous, beneficiary of what Lilburne had done more than 300 years earlier. Miranda was born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1941, the fifth son of an immigrant house painter from Sonora, Mexico. When Miranda was six, his mother died. Thereafter, his early life was a succession of conflicts with his stepmother, truancies from Queen of Peace Grammar School, and steadily worsening disciplinary problems. See Baker, Miranda: Crime, Law and Politics (Atheneum 1985).

An early watershed year came for Miranda in 1954, when he finished his eighth (and last) year of formal education and was convicted of his first serious crime. From then on, he became the prototype of a practiced recidivist. It was one illegal act, arrest, and conviction after another, with assorted incarcerations between 1957 and 1961 in Arizona, California, Texas, Tennessee, and Ohio. During one period of freedom, Miranda enlisted in the U.S. Army but, true to form, he was dishonorably discharged after going AWOL and then did hard labor at the post stockade at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

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