Another state court conviction reversed by a 9th Circuit panel on habeas corpus grounds after the California Court of Appeal affirmed the verdict of first degree murder.
The evidence was overwhelming. The defendant Lujan repeatedly expressed his intention to kill his estranged wife. He did so by lying in wait, smashing her head with a concrete block and, at the same time, killed a deputy sheriff whom she was dating. Killed the same way.
Detectives interviewed Lujan, informed him of his right to silence, and discussed the right to counsel but not precisely as worded in the standard Miranda card. Later on, the defendant asked if he could have an attorney present, and the detective explained obtaining an attorney on Sunday might be difficult but the decision was up to him. The detective added some informal information and said the decision to have a lawyer lay in the defendant’s hands. Without reciting all the questions asked of Lujan, the tenor of the conversation was cordial and non threatening. The entire conversation was recorded and confirmed the absence of any coercion or threats.
At the trial in state court, Lujan admitted committing the murder, and the jury found him guilty. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal agreed the Miranda admonition “incomplete” but the confession at trial restating the same information Lujan gave the detective created harmless error. The federal district court on habeas corpus agreed on the incorrect explanation of of the Miranda warning. The 9th Circuit embraced this decision citing Harrison v. U.S., 392 U.S. 219 (1968-a case decided during the hey days of Supreme Court constitutional inventions).
The purpose of the Miranda rule informing suspects of the right to counsel and silence emerged to remove the constant argument of inconsistent statements between law enforcement officers and suspects occurring in a confined and threatening environment. The Supreme Court attempted to eliminate allegations of “involuntary” statements elicited from suspects in custody by advising them of their right to silence and to the assistance of counsel. Well intentioned, but repeatedly expanded by other courts beyond its rationale as written by the Supreme Court. Lujan is an example.
Because detectives did not read the form Miranda card but spoke to Lujan informally, without threatening or misleading him, the 9th Circuit panel granted habeas. The trial court even ruled the confession was not involuntary. In other words, the entire rationale underlying Miranda was absent. That consequence did not deter the 9th Circuit despite the California Court of Appeal decision or AEDPA. In fact, because the defendant had confessed at trial, the admissibility of the confession in custody became redundant. “No”, said the panel, if the inadmissible confession induced the defendant to testify it constituted “fruit of the poisoned tree” and could not be introduced in evidence.
Here is a case of a voluntary confession, confirmed by the defendant’s testimony at trial, upheld on appeal by a state court, but reversed by the 9th Circuit. The purpose of the Fifth Amendment prohibition of compulsory self incrimination is completely lacking in the transcript of the confession. The detective tried to explain to Lujan the option of talking to him or not, with or without an attorney. According to the 9th Circuit panel, the detective failed to tell Lujan he could have an attorney before and during the questioning. This is form over substance and a complete mis application of Miranda rationale. Now a man unquestionably convicted of murdering two people may go free or his retrial impaired.
It is time for Congress to end the endless charade of 9th Circuit reversals of state court convictions many years afterward on habeas corpus grounds. Lujan is a perfect example. Under AEDPA the federal court has a heavy burden to reverse state couirts on collaeral review and must accept a reasonable state court decision-even if incorrect. In reading the Court of Appeal decision, the state court judges interpreted the Miranda admonition and the questioning reasonably.