Ordinarily, I leave this area of the law to the my partner, Susan Rayl, but today (well, yesterday by the time I’m writing this) the Indiana Supreme Court issued a decision, written by Justice Stephen David, that caught my attention. In Bond v. State, the Court held that the defendant’s confession was involuntary, and therefore inadmissible as evidence against him, because it was obtained through interrogation by a police officer who told the defendant, an African American from Gary, Indiana, that his race would prevent him from getting an impartial jury or a fair trial.
The officer’s interrogation strategy was to persuade the defendant that the police knew he was guilty and that the only way he could improve his situation was to confess. Over a period of three hours, the officer suggested that the defendant might be charged with a less serious crime if he confessed and told the defendant that a confession would allow him to see his children and talk to his mother. Then, about two hours into the interrogation, the officer told the defendant:
[d]on’t let twelve people who are from Schererville, Crown Point–white people, Hispanic people, other people that aren’t from Gary, from your part of the hood–judge you. Because they’re not gonna put people on there who are from your neck of the woods. You know that. They’re not gonna be the ones to decide what happens to you. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. All they’re gonna see is, oh, look at this, another young motherf***** who didn’t give a f***.
About an hour later, the defendant confessed.
Although both the trial court and the Court of Appeals criticized the officer’s statement, neither found it sufficiently coercive to render the confession inadmissible. In a unanimous decision filled with quotations from U.S. Supreme Court decisions, an article by the Court’s former Chief Justice, and the writings Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Supreme Court disagreed.
The Court acknowledged that police are given wide latitude in interrogating suspects. Many people (including many suspects who are later charged and convicted) are surprised to learn that the police are not required to tell the truth during interrogations, and the Supreme Court specifically noted that the other interrogation tactics used in this case (suggesting that a confession might lead to a lesser charge and promising to let the defendant see his family in exchange for a confession) were acceptable. But the suggestion that the defendant could not get a fair trial because of his race went too far. Justice David wrote:
[I]n this case Bond was intentionally deceived as to the fairness of the criminal justice system itself because of the color of his skin. Regardless of the evidence held against him or the circumstances of the alleged crime, he was left with the unequivocal impression that because he was African American he would spend the rest of his life in jail. Unless he confessed. And in unfortunate days gone by, this might have been the case. But no one wants to go back to such a time or place in the courtroom, and so we will not allow even the perception of such inequality to enter the interrogation room.
For a number of reasons, the decision is likely to serve as strong precedent. For example, confession was ruled involuntary despite the fact that an hour elapsed between the officer’s racial statements and the confession itself. Moreover, the Court made it clear that it did not believe the interrogator was racially motivated, which means that defendants seeking to have similar confessions excluded from evidence will not be required to prove that police officers are themselves racists. In addition, because the officer did not expressly refer to the fact that the defendant was African American, veiled references are not likely to save an otherwise impermissible interrogation. Finally, the Court’s express approval of the other interrogation tactics means that the officer’s racial statement alone was sufficient to taint the entire interview and therefore the confession that it produced.
As Justice David wrote,
[D]espite nearly two hundred years of effort by civil rights activists, legislatures, law enforcement, courts, and others, the perception remains that racial discrimination still exists within our justice system: from police treatment to jury selection to jury verdicts and sentences. And the perception is especially common within the African-American community. It defines reality for many African Americans faced with, serving in, or incarcerated by our criminal courts, and unquestionably has roots in our nation’s tortured history of race relations. That there remains such fear or mistrust of the justice system is why all courts must remain vigilant to eradicate any last vestiges of the days in which a person’s skin color defined their access to justice.
If you believe you are a suspect in a criminal investigation, if you have been charged with a crime, if you wish to appeal a criminal conviction, or if you want to have a prior conviction expunged, please feel free to contact my partner, Susan Rayl, at (317) 964-6000.