September 01, 2012

Youth’s Confession Voluntary Despite Being Kept at Police Station for 55 Hours

Carter v. Thompson, 2012 WL 3290152 (7th Cir. 2012).

Trial court properly found youth’s confession to murder was voluntary where, despite being kept in police station for 55 hours and not having a supportive adult present, she was not interrogated for all of that time, her initial confession was not given in response to police questioning, and she was only kept at the station for that length of time since she had nowhere to go.

Youth was picked up by the Chicago police after her roommate’s body was found and she was one of the last people to be seen with her. While she was with the police, she told them she and the victim had been at a party the night before the victim’s body was found and that she had last seen her leaving for her boyfriend’s house. Believing she was only a witness, the officers released her to her father.

A few hours after her release, someone set fire to her apartment. She was again brought to the police station for questioning without receiving Miranda warnings. Her boyfriend, who was also at the station, corroborated her story and she was released.

The officers picked her up a third time after speaking with her father. He told them he believed she knew who killed her roommate and he was concerned for her safety.

Upon returning to the station, the youth admitted that she lied about seeing her roommate’s boyfriend. She agreed to take a polygraph test the next day. The officer gave conflicting testimony on the stand about whether youth remained at the station over night due to her father’s concerns that she would run if released or because she asked to stay. While she stayed overnight at the station, she was mostly free to move about and slept in the interview room.

The next morning, officers recited Miranda rights to youth and administered a polygraph test. When the initial testing showed she was not being honest, she claimed she had helped her roommate’s boyfriend cover up the murder. Her story began to change quickly after that including claims that her roommate stabbed herself and she punched her when they fought and that she stabbed her in self defense. 

After considering the conflicting confessions and other circumstances, a jury convicted the youth of first degree murder and sentenced her to 30 years imprisonment. She appealed to the Illinois Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court. She then filed a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court. The district court found no clear violation of federal law, but certified the case for appeal due to the unusual circumstances of the interrogation.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the trial court’s decision did not fall outside of the reasonable bounds of established federal law.

To determine whether a confession is voluntary, trial courts must look at the total circumstances. In the case of a juvenile, this includes the individual’s “age, experience, education, background, and intelligence,” the length of time they were interrogated, and the presence of a parent or other supportive adult.

Though the youth was in the police station overnight for a total of 55 hours, the record also showed she was free to move about the station, was only kept there because she had nowhere to go or because her father had concerns about her safety, and her initial confession was given spontaneously, rather than in response to a police question.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that given those circumstances, it was  not unreasonable for the trial court to conclude her confession was voluntary.