Heavy-handed police interrogation tactics following a reported D.C. assault were illegal, according to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which ruled 5-2 that the subsequent conviction and accompanying 14-year sentence should be tossed.
D.C. criminal defense lawyers know that analysis of interrogation tactics is critical when determining a defense strategy - particularly in cases where there is a confession.
While the courts have historically given police a fair amount of leeway when it comes to interrogation tactics, particularly if they believe someone else may be in imminent danger, there are certain lines they absolutely can't cross. So for example, courts have held that police can outright lie to you in order to deceive you into offering a confession. However, they can't beat you or continue to question you after you've clearly asked for a lawyer.
You are, by law, entitled to be informed of your Miranda rights, which include your right under the Sixth Amendment to have a defense attorney present with you while you answer questions. You are entitled under the Fifth Amendment to decline to answer any questions that could cause you to incriminate yourself (and in many cases, pretty much anything you say can serve this purpose).
If your defense attorney finds that the interrogation that led to your confession violated any aspect of the law, he or she can request that the confession or any other evidence obtained as a result be inadmissible in court. The absence of this evidence can cause the case against you to quickly crumble.
This case involved the brutal beating and robbery of an 83-year-old woman who sold kitschy tourist souvenirs just outside the Metro station. The assault was captured on a nearby security camera, and the footage saturated the local media as police searched for a suspect.
A few days later, a D.C. man was arrested. He was ultimately convicted by a jury, with a judge sentencing him to 14 years in prison.
However, prosecutors today are faced with the prospect of either retrying the case, absent the confession, or drop it.
At the center of the appeal was the videotaped confession. He was handcuffed to a chair for 13 hours, and detectives reportedly questioned him repeatedly during that time - despite the fact that he said he didn't want to talk to them and asked for a lawyer. After reviewing the tape, the justices found that the defendant never actually waived his right to be silent or to speak to a lawyer, as is required for police to proceed with questioning.
His defense lawyers had previously raised this issue with two D.C. Superior Court judges in the course of an initial hearing and during trial. However, the tape was allowed to play for the jury.
In some cases, confessions may not be that vital to the case. Prosecutors may have eyewitness testimony or DNA evidence or clear footage of the alleged incident that could be just as damaging. However, in this case, the confession was key because the surveillance footage was grainy and neither the victim or nearby witnesses were able to positively identify the suspect.
That's why ultimately, the justices found the entire conviction had to be scrapped.
Our criminal defense lawyers applaud the decision. We recognize that while appellate courts are often reticent to overturn jury convictions, it was necessary in this case. Such action sends a very clear message to both police and prosecutors: That they are not above the law, and interrogation tactics must adhere to appropriate legal guidelines in order for them to be legitimate.
In the wake of this decision, the Metro Police Department has issued a statement saying they don't condone the initial interrogation techniques used on the defendant, and it's possible that the investigators involved could face internal disciplinary action if they are still employed there.