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State v. Clark

Supreme Court of Georgia

April 17, 2017


          BENHAM, Justice.

         The State appeals the trial court's pre-trial decision to suppress statements made by appellee William Clark during a police station interview. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

         1. This Court has held:

When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, an appellate court must construe the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to the factual findings and judgment of the trial court. This means that the reviewing court generally must accept the trial court's findings as to disputed facts unless they are clearly erroneous, although the reviewing court may also consider facts that definitively can be ascertained exclusively by reference to evidence that is uncontradicted and presents no questions of credibility such as facts indisputably discernible from a videotape.

(Punctuation and citation omitted). State v. Allen, 298 Ga. 1 (1) (a) (779 S.E.2d 248) (2015).

         The record from the suppression hearing, including the police detective's testimony and appellee's videotaped statement, shows on March 4, 2008, appellee called 911 after assaulting and killing his paramour, Deborah Jeffries, by striking her in the head with a golf club and stabbing her in the chest more than twenty times. The first officer on the scene apprehended appellee and placed him in the back of a police vehicle. Shortly thereafter, Detective J.D. Stephens of the Atlanta Police Department arrived on the scene. Detective Stephens testified that, in the presence of the other police officer, [1] he read appellee the Miranda warnings[2] while appellee was sitting in the back of the patrol vehicle at the scene. At the time, appellee was bleeding from an injury to his hand. According to Detective Stephens, the following transpired after he read appellee his rights:

I then asked him if he lived in apartment number 101. He stated that was his apartment. I then asked him who was the deceased woman lying on the floor. He stated it was Deborah Jeffries and that she was his girlfriend. I asked him who killed her. He stated he couldn't remember. He stated he blacked out. I told him that this was a -- that he was going to be transported to Grady Memorial hospital and that I would like to speak with him after he had been treated. He stated he would like to talk to me. That's exactly what happened.

         After this conversation, police escorted appellee to the hospital for treatment and Detective Stephens commenced his investigation of the crime scene. Four hours later, after appellee had been released from the hospital and taken to the police station, Detective Stephens interviewed him.

         Detective Stephens testified he began video-recording the interview after appellee had already been talking for seven minutes. The video recording is approximately 33 minutes long.[3] Less than 30 seconds into the recording, appellee says, "This is off the record, " and Detective Stephens responds, "Yeah." Appellee then proceeds to discuss his three-year history with the victim, accusing her of various nefarious activities and describing how she used her relationships with other men to goad him into becoming upset or angry.[4] About 22 minutes into the recording, Detective Stephens reminds appellee that he was read his rights. Appellee simply continues to talk. At approximately 28 minutes into the interview, appellee puts his head down on the table, but keeps talking. Detective Stephens asks if appellee is okay and tells him he can be taken back to the hospital. Appellee says he feels faint and Detective Stephens again offers to take appellee to the hospital. Appellee continues to talk and, with his head down, eventually describes the point at which he hit and stabbed the victim. Detective Stephens again reminds appellee that his rights were read to him and tells appellee that it took a man to tell the truth. Appellee places his head on the table and says his stomach is hurting. At that point, Detective Stephens steps out of the room to call the paramedics. While Detective Stephens is out of the room, appellee can be seen on the video climbing on top of the table, then lying down on it as if in distress. The video then stops. According to Detective Stephens, the paramedics found nothing wrong with appellee and, after they left, he resumed interviewing appellee for about 40 more minutes, but did not record it. Detective Stephens could not explain why he did not record this last portion of his interview of appellee at the police station.

         On July 22, 2016, the trial court held a motion to suppress hearing, [5] at which it considered Detective Stephens' live testimony and viewed portions of the videotape. At the close of the hearing, the trial court stated it believed Detective Stephens had read appellee his Miranda rights, but it did not believe appellee understood those rights. In its written order, the trial court found as follows: Detective Stephens read appellee the Miranda warnings at the scene four hours prior to the recorded interview at the police station; Detective Stephens did not re-read the Miranda warnings to appellee; Detective Stephens made "little or no effort" to ensure appellee understood his rights; Detective Stephens responded in the affirmative when appellee stated his belief that the custodial interview was "off the record"; and appellee could have reasonably understood "the detective's affirmation to mean that the interview was in fact off the record…." The trial court granted appellee's motion to suppress his videotaped custodial statement[6] on the ground the State failed to carry its burden to show it was voluntary. We cannot say the trial court's findings were clearly erroneous.

         2. A defendant's waiver of the right to remain silent during a custodial interview must be made "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently." Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694) (1966). "But unless and until such warnings and waiver are demonstrated by the prosecution at trial, no evidence obtained as a result of interrogation can be used against him." Id. at 479. The inquiry into whether a waiver is voluntary, knowing and intelligent has "two distinct dimensions":

First, the relinquishment of the right must have been voluntary in the sense that it was the product of a free and deliberate choice rather than intimidation, coercion, or deception. Second, the waiver must have been made with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it.

(Citation omitted.) Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412 (II) (A) (106 S.Ct. 1135, 89 L.Ed.2d 410) (1986). In this case, the trial court essentially concluded appellee did not have a "full awareness of both the nature of [his] right [against self-incrimination] and the consequences of the decision to abandon it."

         This Court has held that when an accused has received Miranda warnings, but subsequently the police officer affirmatively states that an accused's custodial statements will be kept confidential, then the resulting statements are inadmissible at trial. See Spence v. State, 281 Ga. 697 (2) (642 S.E.2d 856) (2007). In reaching this conclusion in Spence v. State, which is the precedent cited by the trial court in its order granting appellee's motion to suppress, this Court relied on Hopkins v. Cockrell, 325 F.3d 579, 585 (5th Cir. 2003), in which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reasoned that, "An officer cannot read the defendant his Miranda warnings and then turn around and tell him that despite those warnings, what the defendant tells the officer will be confidential and still use the resultant confession against the defendant." Other jurisdictions have made similar rulings as we did in Spence v. State. See Leger v. Commonwealth, 400 S.W.3d 745 (II) (Ky. 2013) (police officer's promise of confidentiality during a custodial interview vitiated the previously given Miranda warnings and waiver); Lee v. State, 418 Md. 136 (III) (12 A3d 1238) (2011) (officer's statement that the custodial interrogation was "between you and me" was in violation of Miranda and rendered the accused's ...

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