(CN) – To invoke their Miranda rights, suspects must clearly state that they wish to remain silent, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a decision favoring police. The justices voted 5-4 to reinstate the first-degree murder conviction of a man who admitted, after nearly three hours of silence, that he had prayed to God to forgive him for murder.
In making this “uncoerced statement to the police,” the Van Chester Thompkins waived his Miranda rights, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Thompkins had been brought in for questioning in a 2001 shooting outside a Michigan mall that killed one man and injured another.
Thompkins was read his rights to remain silent and to consult an attorney.
About two hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, an officer asked Thompkins, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?”
Thompkins answered “Yes” and looked away.
He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On appeal, he argued that he had never waived his right to remain silent, and that his prayer admission was involuntary. He also challenged his trial attorney’s failure to ask for a jury instruction limiting how the jurors could consider the outcome of an accomplice’s trial.
He lost in the state courts, and a federal judge denied his habeas petition.
But the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati reversed, ruling for Thompkins on both claims. It found that Thompkins’ “persistent silence for nearly three hours … offered a clear and unequivocal message to the officers: Thompkins did not wish to waive his rights.”
The conservative Supreme Court majority disagreed, saying suspects must invoke their Miranda rights unambiguously.
“[A] suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police,” Kennedy wrote. “Thompkins did not invoke his right to remain silent and stop the questioning. Understanding his rights in full, he waived his right to remain silent by making a voluntary statement to the police.”
The majority also rejected Thompkins’ claim about the jury instruction, saying “it was not reasonably likely that the instruction would have made any difference in light of the other evidence of guilt.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who had appeared sympathetic toward Thompkins during oral arguments, filed a dissenting opinion joined by her three liberal colleagues.
“The Court concludes today that a criminal suspect waives his right to remain silent if, after sitting tacit and uncommunicative through nearly three hours of police interrogation, he utters a few one-word responses,” Sotomayor wrote.
“The Court also concludes that a suspect who wishes to guard his right to remain silent against such a finding of ‘waiver’ must, counterintuitively, speak — and must do so with sufficient precision to satisfy a clear-statement rule that construes ambiguity in favor of the police.”
She said both conclusions “mark a substantial retreat” from Miranda‘s protections against self-incrimination.
Sotomayor added that the majority’s “broad rules” were unnecessary to decide the case. Because prosecutors never carried their burden of showign that Thompkins had waived his right to remain silent, she said, Thompkins is entitled to relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.