The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who argued that his statements to the police were obtained unlawfully. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Vincent.
The defendant and his live-in girlfriend of more than one year had a rocky and sometimes violent relationship. The defendant constantly accused the girlfriend of cheating on him and was paranoid that she would leave him. At the beginning of June, 2009, the defendant again accused the girlfriend of cheating on him. Neighbors listened as the defendant yelled at the girlfriend and heard an object being banged against the wall. During the early morning hours of June 3rd, the defendant began making phone calls in which he made various statements about finding the girlfriend unconscious on the floor. When friends and family members urged the defendant to call for help, the defendant said he did not want the police to believe he had caused the girlfriend’s injuries. As a result, an ambulance was not called until at least eight hours after the girlfriend was injured.
When the paramedics encountered the girlfriend, they observed her to have extensive bruising on her face and body and a contusion on her head. She was transported to a local hospital where she died the following day. The medical examiner concluded that the girlfriend died from a significant brain injury that had been caused by blunt force trauma to the head. Additionally, there were more than 80 bruises on the girlfriend’s neck, face, and torso.
On the afternoon that the girlfriend was taken to the hospital, the defendant’s parents drove him to the police station. He was taken to an interview room where he began talking to police officers. The initial interview ended when the defendant said he needed an attorney and stopped talking. During his subsequent booking, the defendant said he again wanted to talk about the case and he made damaging statements to the officers. This second interview ended when the defendant said he didn’t want to talk about anything else.
Before ending the first interview, the defendant repeatedly referenced getting a lawyer. He said he “should probably talk with an attorney,” asked the police if he should get a lawyer, and said he thought he “might need” an attorney. After each comment, the defendant continued to talk about the case.
An appeals court will only suppress a defendant’s statement for failing to be provided with an attorney when the defendant “unequivocally requests counsel.” In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the motion judge that the defendant’s statements about needing or wanting an attorney were ambiguous and therefore did not constitute an invocation of the right to counsel. It is not sufficient for a defendant to simply muse about the possibility of stopping an interrogation to consult with an attorney. A suspect needs to specifically and clearly tell the police that he or she wants to speak to an attorney before answering any questions.
This case is yet another reminder of the importance of consulting with a criminal defense attorney before making a statement to the police. If you know that the police want to talk to you about a crime, always call a defense attorney before answering the police officers’ questions.