The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a 17-year-old boy who shot and killed a cab driver during the course of an attempted robbery. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Neves.
In February of 2008 the defendant, armed with a gun, decided with some friend to rob a cab driver. One friend called and requested a cab report to a dark, dead end street in Brockton. When the cabbie arrived, the defendant and another friend got into the cab while two other friends of the defendant waited for him nearby in a getaway vehicle. When the defendant got into the cab, he pointed his gun at the driver and his friend ordered the driver to give them his money. Instead, the driver grabbed for the gun. The gun fired at some point during the struggle, striking the driver in the head and killing him. The defendant and his friend fled to the getaway car, but the defendant lost his shoe and his cell phone in the process. After a tipster dropped a dime on the defendant, the police picked him up and interrogated him twice the month after the shooting. The defendant eventually admitted he shot the cabbie.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to the police. Following an evidentiary hearing, a superior court judge denied the defendant’s motion to suppress and the case proceeded to trial, where a jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder. He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The defendant made three appellate arguments related to the admission of his statements. First, he asserted that he did not voluntarily waive his Miranda rights. The SJC quickly rejected this argument, ruling the defendant was not under the influence of any substances at the time of his statements and the police did not improperly induce him to waive his rights. Second, the defendant argued his statements to the police were not voluntary because the police had used improperly coercive techniques to obtain his statements. It is undisputed that Brockton police officers lied to the defendant during the interrogation. The cops told the defendant they had recovered his cell phone, that they had surveillance video of the getaway car, and that his fingerprint had been found on the cab. All three of these statements by the police were outright lies. The Court said, as is has before, that it “expressly disapproves” of cops lying to suspects in order to obtain a confession. However, the Court concluded in this case, considering the totality of the circumstances, the cops did not overbear the defendant’s will and render his statements involuntary because, in part, the defendant would have known the cops’ statements were lies.
The defendant’s final argument related to the admission of his statements was that the police continued to interrogate him after he unambiguously said he didn’t want to talk anymore. During the course of the second interrogation, the defendant said, “I’m done. I’m done talking now.” There could be no clearer invocation of a right to remain silent. Nevertheless, the shady Brockton cops continued to ask him questions and in response, the defendant made further admissions. The motion judge recognized that the defendant said he didn’t want to talk anymore, but said his assertions were not important because he continued to talk to the police. The SJC correctly ruled that the motion judge’s analysis was incorrect and said the cops should have stopped questioning the defendant immediately after the defendant said he was done talking. The SJC found the cops had not scrupulously honored the defendant’s right to remain silent and, in so doing, had violated his constitutional rights. However, as is too often the case, the SJC ruled that even though it was a mistake for the superior court judge to admit the defendant’s statements (made after his invocation of his right to remain silent), the error was “harmless.” Thus, the defendant’s murder conviction will stand even though the SJC agrees the cops acted unlawfully.
If you ever wonder why the cops break the rules, this opinion provides a perfect reason. The SJC says it doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the cops to lie to a suspect to obtain a confession, but in this case the cops did not suffer a consequence for doing so. The SJC says cops are required to scrupulously honor a defendant’s right to remain silent, but in this case the violation of that rule is “harmless.” Why in the world would any cop obey the rules when there is not a punishment for violating those rules? By breaking the rules in this case, the cops were able to obtain confessions that helped convict the defendant of murder. The SJC acknowledged the cops violated the defendant’s constitutional rights but affirmed the defendant’s conviction anyway. For shame.