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Subject made ambiguous request for counsel (Saddler has clarified this)

Facts

Dudley Coleman and Jennifer Lenard were shot and killed in a wooded area along Highway 9 in Pontotoc County in 2003. Testimony at trial revealed that Coleman and John Thomas Scott were involved in the sale of methamphetamine. Scott owed Coleman about $4,500 as a result of these dealings. The night before the murders, Scott believed Coleman attempted to burglarize his home in order to collect the debt.

On the day of the murders, Coleman and Scott agreed to meet and discuss the debt. They met along Highway 9 between Pontotoc and Bruce. Scott parked his vehicle and got into Coleman’s vehicle. Jennifer Lenard was Coleman’s passenger. After a short drive, Coleman’s vehicle came to a stop on a county road. An argument ensued, and Scott shot Coleman from the back seat of the vehicle.

Scott shot Lenard when she began to exit the car, though the shot was not fatal. Before fleeing on foot, Scott delivered a second and fatal shot to the back of Lenard’s head. Scott then ran into the nearby woods and threw the murder weapon into a pond.

Later that day, Pontotoc County Sheriff Leo Mask received a call that Scott was hiding in the woods nearby. The sheriff said that after looking in the woods he came across a person. He shone a flashlight, saw Scott, and told him to “get down on the ground.” Scott complied, then Mask asked him “what he was doing” and to identify himself. Scott gave his name and responded: “you know what I’m doing.” Mask testified that before he read Scott a description of his rights, Scott remarked: “I probably need to talk to a lawyer.”

Deputy Mike McGowan was also present in the woods. McGowan said he was patting down Scott to check for weapons when Scott said, “I probably need to talk to a lawyer.”

Scott testified that “Sheriff Mask asked me why I did it. I told him. It ain’t what you think. And then he asked me where the gun was, and I told him I wanted a lawyer, and then he asked me why I did it.”

After his arrest, Scott was taken to jail where he was booked by Deputy William VanGorder. VanGorder asked questions relating to the booking process such as Scott’s name and address, but he did not interrogate Scott about the crime. At that time, Scott volunteered information about the crime. Scott did not during the interaction with VanGorder request an attorney.

After being booked, Scott was again advised of his rights by Deputy Junior Rossell. Afterward, Scott signed a waiver of his rights and began to volunteer the details of the crime which included Scott’s admission that he had shot both victims. At no time during Rossell’s involvement did Scott request an attorney.

After the hearing on Scott’s motion to suppress, the trial court ruled that Scott never specifically invoked his right to have an attorney present during questioning.

Scott was convicted of murder and sentenced to life. On appeal, he argued his request for counsel was ignored and that he was abusing drugs when he gave his statement. MCOA affirmed.

Analysis

A. Request for counsel

All of the versions of the request for counsel are clear that the request was made during the time of or immediately before arrest. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Scott made the request for counsel during an interrogation. A request for counsel is not “triggered” unless made during an “interrogation.”

The somewhat varied accounts in our case agree that the only reference to an attorney was the statement of “probable” need while the sheriff was engaged in his first encounter in the woods with Scott.

In Davis v. U.S., 512 U.S. 452 (1994), the U.S. Supreme Court held that police do not need to end questioning when the subject makes ambiguous requests for counsel.

Objectively viewed, Scott’s statement that he would “probably need to talk to a lawyer” was ambiguous and easily seen as simply an admission that he was in substantial legal difficulty. Also, the request did not occur during interrogation.

B. Drug use and confession

Scott argues that his confession was neither voluntary nor obtained with his “full knowledge” of the consequences of the confession. Scott testified that he had been abusing drugs and had not slept for a number of days prior to talking to officers. Scott informed the officers of this fact. The officers do not dispute that claim. Scott argues that his chemical dependency rendered him unable to make a free and voluntary confession.

Sheriff Mask and Deputy McGowan characterized Scott as being generally cooperative during the arrest. The sheriff said that Scott did not appear to be under the influence of alcohol, but that he could not really tell if he was under the influence of drugs. Scott told Sheriff Mask that he had been using methamphetamine. Deputy McGowan stated that he did not believe Scott to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Deputy Rossell did not believe Scott to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs once Scott was brought to the sheriff’s office. Deputy Rossell testified that he did not smell alcohol on Scott, and he did not appear to be under the influence of narcotics. Rossell said that Scott “seemed to know what he was telling me.” Scott did not tell Rossell that he had been using methamphetamine or that he had not slept in many days.

When Deputy Van Gorder asked Scott during booking whether he had taken any drugs or had been drinking, Scott replied that he had used methamphetamine earlier that day. Van Gorder said that Scott did not appear to be nervous, but that he seemed to be trying to “explain himself out of the situation.” Van Gorder stated than Scott was “just volunteering the information. The only questions I was asking him pertained to booking.”

In Bryant, the defendant made an argument that his confession was involuntary due to the use of narcotics. The defendant’s mother corroborated his drug addiction. Despite the testimony, we found that the confession was voluntary because the evidence showed it was the product of the defendant’s free and rational choice. There was also testimony from an officer in Bryant that the defendant did not appear to be intoxicated at the time of the confession.

In addition, Scott’s actions on the day of the murders also indicated a mind capable of perceiving the world around him and taking control of his own actions. Scott testified that he had driven to meet Coleman. After Scott admitted that he shot the victims, he testified that he wiped his fingerprints off of the car door. He also wiped fingerprints from the murder weapon and tossed it in a nearby lake.

He avoided returning to his vehicle, opting instead to flee in another direction. He went to an area near the lake to assist his fiancee, as he feared his fiancee was in some sort of danger. At that time, he recognized a resident of the area and identified himself. Scott also recognized the resident as the owner of a store. Scott also said he recognized Sheriff Mask once he had arrived. Scott then gave a vivid recounting of the very precise conversation he alleges to have had with Sheriff Mask from the woods. These behaviors support that Scott’s confession was with full knowledge of the consequences of making it.

Thoughts

MSC has since decided Saddler wherein they said that it is still good police practice to ask clarifying questions when the subject makes ambiguous requests to remain silent and/or to obtain an attorney. However, they have said they will now follow U.S. Supreme Court case Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994), which holds that the right to counsel can only be legally asserted by an unambiguous or unequivocal request for counsel.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/CO36127.pdf