Despite cultural barriers, subject statement is admissible


In 2001, Ngan Tran and Thong Le planned to rob the home of Minh Heiu Thi Huynh, where she lived with her two daughters, Thuy Hang Huynh Nguyen, age fifteen, and Thanh Truc Huynh Nguyen, age eleven. Armed with a gun, the two men went to Minh’s home, knocked on the door, and were allowed in by Thuy who was home with her sister. Tran and Le tied and gagged the girls and waited for Minh to return home. At some point, Tran briefly left the home to move the car, leaving Le with the girls.

When Minh returned home, she was overpowered and hogtied with electrical cord. When Tran demanded money, she directed him to her purse. The victims were beaten and strangled until they died. After attempting to sanitize the crime scene with bleach and water for several hours, Tran and Le left with approximately $1,300 and a bookbag containing some household items.

When Le was later arrested and charged with the crimes, he was carrying some of the money.

Sergeant Joseph W. Nicholson (“Nicholson”) arrested and interrogated Le. During the interrogation, Nicholson questioned Le as follows:

NICHOLSON: And the story that you are telling me is what you’re going to have to live with the rest of your life? What’s your religion?

LE: Buddhist.

NICHOLSON: You’re a Buddhist, ain’t you? You believe in God, don’t you?

LE: Yes sir.

NICHOLSON: And you believe in reincarnation, don’t you?

LE: Yes, sir.

NICHOLSON: You believe in the souls of human individuals, don’t you?

LE: Yes, sir.

NICHOLSON: And you believe that there is three souls that was taken tonight, don’t you?

LE: Yes, sir.

NICHOLSON: And you believe that none of their souls are complete, none of their souls are complete cause you have one of their souls, don’t you?

LE: No response.

NICHOLSON: Don’t you.

LE: I do not sir.

NICHOLSON: You have one of their souls, you do and you know their life is not complete until you give them that soul back and you’ve got the burden to carry your soul and their soul and you can’t carry that deep in you heart can you, Look at me, Look at me, Son, you can’t carry that deep in your heart?

LE: (Inaudible)

NICHOLSON: It’s the difference between right and wrong, That’s all it is.

LE: I know what’s right and what’s wrong.

NICHOLSON: It’s the difference between facing your fears.

LE: I know what’s right and what’s wrong.

NICHOLSON: You know what’s right and what’s wrong?

LE: When we left out yesterday . . .

NICHOLSON: Tying up three women is wrong, son. Tying up three women and killing them is wrong.

LE: I told you I didn’t.

During the interrogation, Le confessed to his involvement in the robbery and admitted that he “tied both sisters up” and that he “hit the back of the head” of the mother with his fist. He confessed to the robbery but maintained that he had no idea Tran planned to kill the mother and the girls. He insisted he took no part in the murders.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress and said:

The court would find that the evidence presented, shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the statement made by the defendant was freely and intelligently and voluntary made without any improper inducement. There were no — The Court does not find that there were any promises of salvation or redemption. Basically the officer was getting to the point, or asking him about did he know — did he understand right from wrong, and he indicated that he did. The evidence further shows that the defendant reads, speaks and understands English well. He was born in the United States, although from a Vietnamese family. He still went to English-speaking schools to the tenth grade, and in his testimony today spoke English fluently, and indicated that he understood English well and read English well, and as I said before, went to the tenth grade. So there was no — the Court finds there was no improper inducement made, and that his statement was a voluntary statement; that he understood his rights, and that he made a voluntary waiver of his constitutional rights; that the proper [Miranda] Warnings were given to him. He initialed each and every one of those and signed his name, which he signed the name that he uses, Tony. So I’m going to deny the motion.

Prior to Le’s trial, Tran committed suicide.

Le was convicted of three counts of capital murder and sentenced to death. On appeal, he argued the confession should have been suppressed. MSC affirmed.


A. Did Le Waive His Constitutional Right to Remain Silent?

Le is correct in asserting that, when determining voluntariness, the court must look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the statement. See Jones. Le, who was nineteen years old at the time of the questioning, also points out that youth can be a factor to consider under the totality of the circumstances test. See Miller v. State, 243 So.2d 558 (Miss. 1971).

Le was given his Miranda warnings on two separate occasions. At the hearing on the pre-trial motion, Le testified on direct examination that he thought that the police had told him “something about getting a lawyer,” but that Le did not understand that it was his constitutional right at the time. Le further testified that he had signed a release of his rights form, but that he had signed it without looking at the statement.

However, Le also stated that “if [he] did sign it, [he] probably glanced through it.” Le testified that he could read English. Le further testified that he signed the release while being questioned by the police, who told Le to initial the form. Le stated that he did so, but “didn’t look” at it.

On cross-examination, Le testified that he had heard the Miranda warnings many times on television, but stated that if he had understood his constitutional right to remain silent, he would not have answered the police officer’s questions. The State questioned Le about what it was he did not understand about his rights, and Le answered that he “just felt like … [he] had to answer [the officer’s] questions.” Le admitted that his Miranda rights had been given to him twice, and that he had signed the release form.

Le contends that he did not understand his rights because of the cultural barriers and because, “in the shrimping community on the Gulf Coast, the Vietnamese can live their lives separate from the American community, separate in speech, separate in religion, and separate in culture.” However, after observing Le and hearing his testimony, the trial judge concluded that Le knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent.

We find that the trial court did not apply an incorrect legal standard, did not commit manifest error, and his decision was not contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Thus, this issue has no merit.

B. Religious Comments

Le contends that Nicholson improperly used his religious beliefs to coerce him into making incriminating admissions.  Le tells us such use of religion and spirituality in the interrogation room is condemned by this court and cites Johnson v. State, 107 Miss. 196 (1914).

It is true that a confession was obtained from Johnson, at least partially by offering him the hope of salvation, and that this court found the confession to be involuntary. However, there were significant factual differences in Johnson which make impossible any meaningful comparison to the case before us today. In Johnson, this court described it as follows:

Johnson was friendless, and a stranger in the city. He was charged with the gravest offense known to the law and imprisoned therefor. He was ill and in a nervous and weak physical condition. He was under fear of mob violence. In this condition, he was visited three times within 24 hours by a strong man, one who was experienced in obtaining confessions, and who visited him only to secure his confession. The very words used in the effort to obtain the confession were enough, under the circumstances, to put Johnson, already sick and excited, in nervous dread.

We said in Johnson that it is necessary to look at all the surrounding circumstances of the person making the confession in order to determine whether it is rendered inadmissible because it resulted from fear or threat or the undue influence of a person, even though one not in authority, operating upon the mind of the person confessing. Even the acts of third persons may amount to a threat excluding confession, though no objectionable words are spoken.

In our case, Le had already confessed to the robbery and to the fact that the killings occurred during the course of the robbery, before any mention of his religion. Furthermore, we do not find in the record any admissions in response to the religious line of questioning. To the contrary, Le continued to deny killing anyone.

Le argues that the religious comments led him to admit important details which could matter a great deal to a jury deciding whether to impose a sentence to death. Even if true, however, Le must further demonstrate that the religious discussion constituted impermissible coercion.

In Welch v. Butler, 835 F.2d 92 (5th Cir.1988), Welch made a statement, in a taped conversation with his wife, that he was concerned that God would never forgive him for committing murder. During later questioning at the police station, Welch and a police officer discussed forgiveness and salvation and prayed together for about three hours. During this time, Welch made incriminating statements. At trial, Welch objected to the admission into evidence of these statements, claiming they were coerced. In reviewing the issue, the Fifth Circuit stated:

To hold that the inculpatory statements were made voluntarily, we must conclude that he made an independent and informed choice of his own free will, possessing the capability to do so, his will not being overborne by the pressures and circumstances swirling around him. The burden of proving facts which would lead to an opposite conclusion is on the defendant.

There can be no doubt that Welch’s confession was not the product of will overborne by the police. One does not have to be devout to accept the fact that Welch was concerned about his salvation and about divine forgiveness. However, this concern existed before his conversations with Easley. At most, the police set up a situation that allowed Welch to focus for some time on those concerns with a fellow Christian in the hope that his desire to be saved would lead him to confess. What coercion that existed was sacred, not profane.

In carefully reviewing the record, we cannot find any error in the trial court’s decision to allow into evidence the statements made by Le.