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Manslaughter conviction tossed over Miranda violation

 

A Greenville man convicted of manslaughter has been given another day in court after the South Carolina Court of Appeals found that his confessions were obtained illegally.

The court said that because Marshell Hill was in custody at the time of his first confession, but hadn’t been read his Miranda rights, the evidence should not have been admitted at trial. Hill’s second confession, given a few hours later, during the same interrogation, also should have been inadmissible, the court said, because the Miranda warnings occurred “midstream,” during the same interview.

Police had arrested Hill for an outstanding bench warrant while responding to a 911 call during which they found a man dead outside Hill’s home. After Hill was released the next morning, police returned and asked him to come back to the station to be interviewed, which he did.

During the interrogation Hill admitted to the killing, saying he hit the deceased, his friend, in the head with a cane after a night of drinking when he caught him stealing his television. Hill was taken into a video interrogation room where investigators told him “we didn’t tell you you couldn’t go home; we told you we could not make that decision until we find out what you have to tell us” and that he wasn’t signing his rights away but rather “setting them aside,” before he confessed on camera.

At trial, Greenville County Circuit Court Judge Perry Gravely said it was “a very close call,” but denied Hill’s motion to suppress the two statements, finding Hill was not in custody when he made his first confession and that he voluntarily waived his Miranda rights before the second. Hill was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and appealed, arguing that neither confession should have been admitted at trial.

Judge D. Garrison Hill, writing on behalf of a unanimous Court of Appeals panel, said that since Marshell Hill was not read his Miranda rights prior to the first part of the interrogation, the only issue in question about the first confession was whether or not he was actually in custody.

Citing Miranda v. Arizona and Stansbury v. California, Judge Hill said that a person is in custody if formally arrested or “deprived of his freedom of action to a significant degree.” While not every questioning that happens at a police station is custodial, Judge Hill said “a finding of custody is much more likely” when the invitation to talk is conditioned by the police escorting the defendant to the station.

Citing a lack of evidence showing that Marshell Hill knew he could end questioning, the two-hour length of the interview and the investigator’s statement that they couldn’t let him leave until “we find out what you have to tell us,” Judge Hill said Marshell Hill should have been considered in custody.

“From this statement alone, it can be inferred a reasonable person would have concluded he was not free to leave,” Judge Hill said. As a result, the first confession should have been excluded.

Judge Hill then noted that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Missouri v. Seibert, questioning a suspect until he confesses, giving the Miranda warnings and then getting the suspect to repeat their previous confession is illegal.

Seibert deemed this tactic undermined Miranda’s goal of reducing the risk of involuntary confessions procured by improper police pressure,” Judge Hill said.

Judge Hill said that because both interrogations were similar, involving the same investigators, in the same building, without a break, they must be considered part of the same continuous questioning. Judge Hill said the investigator’s request to tell them “no more than what you’ve already said,” also suggests that the questioning was continuous.

“It would have been reasonable to regard the two sessions as part of a continuum, in which it would have been unnatural to refuse to repeat at the second stage what had been said before,” Judge Hill said. Therefore, the court found that even though Hill was presented with Miranda warnings before the second confession, they were not “effective at the late stage they were given.”

Kathrine Hudgins of the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense in Columbia represented Hill on appeal. She did not respond to requests for comment. Representatives from the Attorney General’s office also did not respond to requests for comment.

The eight-page decision is State v. Hill (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-100-18). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Matt Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney

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