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Friday, April 18, 2014

Criminal Justice Quote: The Miranda Decision

     On June 13, 1966, by a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court rendered its now-famous Miranda v. Arizona decision. Supposedly based on the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which states that "No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself," Miranda twisted these simple words beyond recognition.

     The court held that even voluntary, uncoerced confessions by a suspect in police custody would no longer be admissible as evidence, unless the police first warned him that (1) he had the right to remain silent, (2) anything he said might be used against him in court, (3) he had the immediate right to a lawyer, and (4) he could get a free lawyer if he couldn't afford one. The suspect then had to expressly waive those rights before any questioning could proceed. Should police make the slightest omission or error in this ritual, any evidence they get can be thrown out, and the suspect can "walk."

     In this single decision, four veteran criminals, convicted after voluntarily confessing to separate crimes, had their convictions overturned. The first was a three-time convict who admitted to a robbery after being identified by two victims. The second forged stolen checks from a purse-snatching in which the victim was killed. The third, a veteran bank robber, confessed after being told of his rights, but didn't explicitly waive them first. The fourth, arrested for kidnapping and rape, was identified by his victim, and later confessed "with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding that any statement I make may be used against me." He hadn't, however, been formally advised of his right to have a lawyer present.

     Even though these confessions weren't "involuntary in traditional terms," writes Chief Justice Earl Warren for the majority, "in none of these cases did the officers undertake to afford the appropriate safeguards….to insure that the statements were truly the product of a free choice."

     By what convoluted reasoning could such voluntary admissions be construed to be coerced?  According to the Court's majority opinion, "In each of these cases, the defendant was thrust into an unfamiliar atmosphere and run through menacing police interrogation procedures. The potentiality for compulsion is forcefully apparent, for example…where the indigent Mexican defendant  was a seriously disturbed individual with pronounced sexual fantasies [author's note: the man had been judged mentally competent to stand trial], and where the defendant was an indigent Los Angeles Negro who had dropped out of school in the sixth grade." [Emphasis added.]

     This is the deterministic language of the Excuse-Maker, brimming with thinly veiled editorials about poverty and racism, regarding even a confessed criminal as a helpless pawn of social pressures. (By contrast, the rape victim was coldly described as "the complaining witness.")

Robert James Bidinotto, "Subverting Justice," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinatto, ed., 1994

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