Ignored Request for Attorney Voids Case
(CN) - California must retry or release a man convicted for the murder of a minister because police interrogators ignored his pre-Miranda request for a lawyer, the 9th Circuit ruled.
Tio Sessoms and two other men broke into the Sacramento home of Edward Sheriff one night in 1999. During the burglary, one of the accomplices killed Sheriff, a popular associate pastor at the local Cathedral of Promise Metropolitan Community Church, strangling him and stabbing him over and over.
The 19-year-old Sessoms fled to his father's home in Oklahoma. His father talked him into surrendering, but made sure he knew to ask for a lawyer before being questioned. Sessoms claims he did just that, and that investigators ignored him and told him that having a lawyer would only make things worse. A recording of the interrogation has Sessoms mentioning a lawyer several times just seconds after the officers entered the interrogation room and before they had read him his Miranda rights. According to a partial transcript of the interview included in the 9th Circuit's ruling, at one point he said: "Yeah, that's what my dad asked me to ask you guys . . . uh, give me a lawyer."
Sessoms's interrogators did not consider this statement to be a clear request for counsel. They eventually got the suspect to make incriminating statements, and he was later convicted for his role in the crime and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Sessoms tried to get the statements suppressed, but the trial court and the California Court of Appeal refused. The higher court ruled that Sessoms' request for counsel had to be "unequivocal or unambiguous," and that his was neither. A federal habeas petition then met with dismissal in District Court in Sacramento, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit later affirmed. But the federal appeals court in San Francisco agreed to rehear the case before a full, 11-judge panel, which on Thursday issued a divided ruling that reversed the District Court and ordered the state to "retry Sessoms within a reasonable period, or release him."
The panel found that the California Court of Appeals had held Sessoms's request for counsel to the wrong standard. The "unequivocal or unambiguous" rule only applies to such requests made after the suspect has been informed of his Miranda rights, according to the six-judge majority.
"A person not aware of his rights cannot be expected to clearly invoke them," wrote Judge Betty Fletcher. "Once, however, a suspect has been read his Miranda rights, it is reasonable to ascribe to him knowledge of those rights. If at some later point during the custodial interrogation he decides that he wants an attorney, he should be held to a higher standard of clarity to invoke that right."
Regardless of the standard to which they were held, Sessoms's requests were far from ambigous, according to Fletcher.
"Here, any reasonable police officer (as indeed did these officers) would understand that Sessoms expressed his desire to have a lawyer present at his interrogation," she wrote. "Forty seconds into the conversation, before any meaningful exchange took place, Sessoms requested counsel twice in rapid succession. First, Sessoms said 'There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a - a lawyer present while we do this?' Although it was couched in a polite and diffident manner, the meaning of Sessoms's request was clear: he wanted a lawyer then and there. If there were any doubt (which there should not have been), Sessoms immediately made a second statement:
'Yeah, that's what my dad asked me to ask you guys . . . uh, give me a lawyer.' Simply put, the words 'give me a lawyer" mean just that:'give me a lawyer.'"
Five judges, including Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, disagreed, arguing that the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) obligated the circuit to give the California Court of Appeal a higher level of deference than the majority had allowed.
Under that law, "a federal habeas court may not grant relief unless no reasonable jurist could agree with the state court's determination," wrote Judge Mary Murguia in dissent.
"Could the police officers have assumed that Sessoms was in fact asking for a lawyer? Yes. Was it objectively unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to hold that a police officer could have interpreted Sessoms's statement as a possible request for a lawyer rather than an actual request for a lawyer, which would not require the officer to stop the interrogation? I cannot say that it was.
Because this court is constrained by the deference mandated by AEDPA, even when faced with a close case where it may have ruled differently than the state court, I respectfully dissent."