Knowing and Voluntary Miranda Waivers

The Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, recently decided a very interesting Miranda case. Garner v. Mitchell, available here, is a capital case.  The defendant stole a woman’s purse, took a taxi to her house, robbed it, and set it on fire to conceal his fingerprints, killing five of the six children who were sleeping in the house.  Police arrested him and administered Miranda warnings, and he confessed to setting the fire.  He was prosecuted for murder, convicted, and sentenced to death.

The case made its way through the state appellate and post-conviction process, and eventually, the defendant filed a federal habeas petition, arguing, among other things, that he lacked the capacity to make a knowing and voluntary waiver of his Miranda rights, by virtue of his IQ of 76.  (Apparently, he hadn’t raised this issue, at least not in quite this way, in the state courts, but the federal courts decided to hear the issue anyhow, for reasons that aren’t relevant to this discussion.)  The defense presented considerable evidence of the defendant’s abusive upbringing, low educational level, and borderline intellectual functioning.  The defense also presented evidence from an expert who had administered an instrument called the Grasso test to the defendant.  The test attempts to measure an individual’s ability to understand the Miranda warnings; the defendant’s results on the test were mixed.

On the other side of the ledger, there was testimony at a pretrial suppression hearing that the defendant had expressed his understanding of his Miranda rights and had executed a written waiver of them, and that he seemed “perfectly normal” and “very coherent” during his interview with the police.  Further, the crime that the defendant committed involved some forethought and planning.

The federal district court found that the defendant’s waiver was valid.  A panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the defendant likely lacked the mental capacity to execute a knowing and voluntary waiver.  The en banc court allowed review and reversed again.  The majority was plainly skeptical of the defendant’s claim that he lacked capacity, and was not at all enamored of the opinion of the expert who had given the Grasso test, but it actually decided the case on a different basis.  It ruled that “[t]he underlying police-regulatory purpose of Miranda” means that whether a waiver is knowing and voluntary must be determined “from the perspective of the police,” and because “the police had no reason to believe that [the defendant] misunderstood the warnings, the defendant’s statement was admissible regardless of whether the defendant had the capacity to understand the warnings or not.

This is a big deal, given (a) that about ten percent of the population fall in, or below, the borderline intellectual functioning range, and (b) the possible application of this holding in related contexts, like defendants with limited English skills.  The majority’s conclusion is certainly defensible — in fact, the court was following a Seventh Circuit case to the same effect — but it isn’t the only plausible view, and at least four of the Sixth Circuit’s judges didn’t agree with it, adhering instead to the view that a knowing and voluntary waiver must be knowing and voluntary on the part of the person executing the waiver.

This is almost certainly an issue that will come up with increasing frequency, as mental health issues are litigated more and more often.  We don’t have a North Carolina case on point yet, but there’s a North Carolina murder case now on federal habeas review that may result in a district court opinion on this issue.  It’ll be interesting to see how that comes out — and whether the Fourth Circuit, and eventually the Supreme Court, decide to jump in the fray.

Comments on the Sixth Circuit’s opinion are invited.  Stay tuned for further developments.

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