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Death penalty reference did not rise to level of coercion to suppress statement

Facts

In October 2020, Alexis Tallant had been searching online for a car to purchase. Tallant saw a post on Facebook Marketplace by someone using the name Jaquez Harris. The post listed a 2012 Nissan Maxima for sale for $6,300. After negotiating with Harris through Facebook messages, Tallant agreed to pay a final purchase price of $5,800. She also agreed to meet Harris in Houston, Mississippi, on October 26, 2020. Tallant testified that she asked Robert Cox, her step father, to accompany her.

Around 8:30 p.m., they arrived at a house that appeared rundown and vacant. Tallant observed a Nissan Maxima parked in the driveway of another residence. After a few minutes, Tallant saw a slender-built black man walk from behind the home and approach her and Cox. Tallant testified that the man asked if she and Cox had brought the money for the car. When Tallant responded affirmatively, the man pulled a gun from the front pocket of his pants and placed the weapon against Cox’s head. Tallant stated that the gunman then demanded her money.

According to Tallant, two more men walked from behind the same home as the gunman. One of the men held an aluminum baseball bat. As the two men approached to stand on either side of the gunman, Tallant testified that she disengaged the safety from her own weapon, a .380-caliber gun, concealed inside her purse. Tallant stated that although Cox did not act aggressively as the two men approached, he did push the gunman’s weapon away from his face. Tallant testified that the man holding the baseball bat hit Cox. Tallant further testified that she then pulled out her own gun and attempted to shoot at the man holding the bat. Tallant’s gun jammed, and she had to eject the bullet. She was then able to fire a shot before she ran away. Tallant testified that the gunman began shooting at her and Cox. Tallant thought the gunman shot a total of six times. Cox died from his injuries.

Law enforcement made no arrests until June 2021. Upon seeing the mug shots of Jarquavious Doss, Jeremiah Fears, and Lamarius Spraggins, whom law enforcement had arrested for Cox’s shooting, Tallant stated that she immediately thought to herself, “This is it, these are the guys.” During her trial testimony, Tallant circled Doss’s mug shot to indicate that he had been the assailant who shot Cox. Tallant also made an in-court identification of Doss as Cox’s shooter.

Spraggins pled guilty to accessory after the fact to murder. He testified that he was with Doss and Fears smoking marijuana behind the abandoned house. He heard a car approach and assumed Doss was going to get more marijuana. He then saw Fears pick up a bat. Spraggins walked to the front of the house and saw Cox swat at the gun Doss was holding. Fears then hit Cox with the bat. Tallant started shooting her gun and then Doss fired his weapon multiple times.

Investigator Dwight Parker interviewed Fears, who admitted that he had set up the Facebook post under another name. Fears also told Investigator Parker that Doss had been the assailant who shot Cox.

Police located Doss and brought him to the sheriff’s office for questioning. In addition to Investigator Parker, his partner Investigator Terry Ward, and Detective Alicia Jennings with the Houston Police Department participated in Doss’s interview. At the beginning of the recorded interview, Doss signed a waiver of his Miranda rights. Investigator Parker testified that Doss did not appear to be under the influence of any substances and appeared to fully understand the rights he waived by signing the form.

According to Doss, Fears said to come over to his house “to hit a lick.” Investigator Parker testified that based on his twenty-eight years of law-enforcement experience, “hit a lick” referred to criminal activity involving money, such as committing a robbery or breaking into a house. Doss also told Investigator Parker that Fears was the one who shot Cox and that the gun belonged to Fears. Doss said that he and the other men had not intended to shoot or kill anyone but had simply planned to take the money Cox and Tallant brought.

The next day, investigators learned that Doss wanted to speak with them again. Doss again reiterated during the second interview that Fears and Spraggins had been involved with Cox’s shooting. Investigator Ward further testified that Doss’s statements seemed to imply that Doss witnessed the events firsthand rather than merely hearing about them from someone else.

At trial, Doss testified on his own behalf. He stated that when the investigators questioned him, he was high on drugs (specifically, Adderall and Percocet) and did not fully understand everything the investigators told him about waiving his Miranda rights. In addition, Doss claimed he was still feeling the effects of the drugs he had taken when he spoke to investigators the following day.

Doss testified that he initially told the investigators he had not been present at Cox’s shooting. After the investigators mentioned the death penalty in connection with the crimes, however, Doss revealed to them information he said he had learned from others as he stayed behind the house.

Doss was convicted of murder and armed robbery and sentenced to life. On appeal, he argued his statements should have been suppressed. MCOA affirmed.

Analysis

The trial court must find beyond a reasonable doubt that a confession was knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily given and that before a defendant’s custodial interrogation, he was administered his Miranda rights. See Hamer.

After waiving his Miranda rights on June 3, 2021, Doss spoke to investigators and initially denied any knowledge of or involvement with the armed robbery and shooting. About twenty-five minutes into the interview, Investigator Parker attempted to explain to Doss what constituted a capital offense. In so doing, Investigator Parker stated that the punishment for a capital offense was the death penalty or life imprisonment.

At the hearing on Doss’s motion to suppress, Investigator Parker admitted he knew that anyone under eighteen years old at the time a crime was committed could not be subjected to the death penalty. Investigator Parker testified that he could not remember if he knew at the time of the interview that Doss was seventeen years old when the shooting occurred. During the actual interview, Investigator Parker had asked Doss his age, and Doss had responded that he was eighteen years old. Regardless of Doss’s age at the time of the shooting, Investigator Parker avowed that he had not intended his reference to the death penalty during the interview to be a threat. Moreover, he did not believe that Doss had perceived the remark as such.

After Investigator Parker’s mention of the death penalty, Doss continued to deny any participation in the armed robbery or shooting. A few minutes after Investigator Parker’s remark, Doss stated that on the night of the shooting, Fears had called him and tried to get him involved in a “lick.” Doss maintained, however, that he had refused to take part in Fears’s plans.

Around thirty-five minutes into the interview, Detective Jennings, who was also present for Doss’s interview, mentioned again that the penalties for capital murder included the death penalty or life imprisonment. But even after being told he would likely be charged with murder, Doss maintained that he had no knowledge of or involvement in Cox’s shooting. In addition, Doss began to push back against the investigators’ questioning, stating that they had failed thus far to mention any physical proof that could connect him to the crimes. He also denied that the investigators would find any such incriminating evidence at the crime scene.

Around the forty-seventh minute of the interview, Doss told the investigators that Fears owned a gun and had been the shooter. Doss then revealed that he had been in the general area of the crime scene, beside Fears’s home, but he continued to deny taking part in the shooting or armed robbery. Even though the investigators continued to press him, Doss adamantly denied that he had participated in the crimes or had knowledge of anyone other than Fears who had been involved in the armed robbery.

Over an hour into his interview, Doss provided investigators with additional details about the events he claimed he had seen and heard when Fears approached Tallant and Cox. Doss told the investigators that Fears had gone to negotiate with Tallant and Cox. Doss stated that he then heard gunshots and fled the scene. According to Doss, Fears had promised to give him “a couple thousand” dollars from the “lick.” Doss stated that Fears wanted him to take the money from the “lick” and run away with it. Doss claimed, though, that he never saw the money because he ran from the scene once he heard the gunshots.

The following day, Doss asked to speak with the investigators again. Investigator Ward testified at the suppression hearing that he never heard anyone threaten Doss or promise him anything in exchange for a statement. Investigator Ward stated that he did not think he or Investigator Parker even asked a question before Doss began to volunteer new information about the shooting to them.

Investigator Parker recalled that Doss may have mentioned his wish to be placed in general population rather than confined to a cell by himself. Investigator Parker testified, however, that he had no control over inmate housing. He explained that when law enforcement has more than one suspect in custody at the same time, as they did with Doss and Fears, they often attempt to separate the suspects from the general population and each other to prevent the suspects from discussing the case with one another.

The circuit court concluded that his claims regarding solitary confinement (he was purposefully placed there to coerce a statement) and Investigator Parker’s death- penalty remark failed to establish that his interview statements were involuntarily given. The record reflected no evidence that the investigators had authority over Doss’s prison living arrangements or that they intentionally placed him in solitary confinement to induce a confession.

The circuit court also found the death penalty comment had not been intended as a threat, and Doss had not appeared to perceive it as such. In reaching its determination, the circuit court found the following: Investigator Parker never stated that Defendant would receive the death penalty—only that capital murder (1) was a serious crime and (2) could carry the death penalty or a life sentence. Investigator Parker never told Defendant that his punishment was contingent on his statement or that he would be punished more severely if he did not speak.

Upon review, we conclude that substantial credible evidence supported the circuit court’s findings. In Hamer, we addressed a similar claim that a federal agent’s statements that the defendant was facing the death penalty and was currently at the wrong end of the scale induced his involuntary confession. We acknowledged that while law enforcement did mention the death penalty, made questionable statements, and accompanied those statements with a best case-worse case scenario scale, Hamer did not confess until after hearing all the evidence the police had against him. After watching the entire videotaped statement, the circuit court found that Hamer’s incriminatory statement was in response to his belief as to the proof presented by the investigators and not as a result of promises, threats, or coercion. Under the totality of the circumstances, the circuit court concluded that Hamer’s confession was voluntary, and the court therefore denied Hamer’s motion to suppress his statement to police.

Similarly to Hamer, we find that Investigator Parker’s reference to the death penalty failed to rise to the level of coercion necessary to render Doss’s statement involuntary. Even after Investigator Parker’s remark, Doss maintained his denials and refused to confess to any involvement in the armed robbery or Cox’s shooting. Although Doss eventually named Fears as the shooter and indicated he had witnessed some of the events that had transpired, Doss remained steadfast in his claims that he had played no part in any criminal activity.

After considering the totality of the circumstances in this case, we find no manifest error in the circuit court’s determination that Doss’s pretrial statements were made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/CO176991.pdf