The South Carolina Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a man who was convicted of killing a child when he set a mobile home on fire, finding that his recorded statements to police were coerced by officers who assured him that anything he told them was confidential.
In a case of first impression, the appeals court unanimously held that considering the totality of the circumstances, a defendant’s voluntary statements are inadmissible if police have induced the statements by making false promises to the suspect.
“Assuredly, interrogating officers can make false representations concerning the crime or the investigation during questioning without always rendering an ensuing confession coerced,” Judge Thomas Huff wrote for the court. “But false promises stand on a different footing.”
A 12-year-old boy died in an attempted insurance scam gone horribly wrong. In the early hours of March 29, 2014, Randy Collins and his nephew James Miller set fire to a trailer home owned by Marissa Cohen. They were tragically unaware that one of Cohen’s children, Dave Coombs, had unexpectedly returned to the home, which his family had recently vacated.
After an anonymous tip, Andrews police officer Oliver Nesmith—a man with whom Collins was familiar and possibly related to—obtained a warrant and seized Collins’ cell phones. Several weeks later, Nesmith convinced Collins to come to town hall to retrieve his phones. But when Collins arrived, he was greeted by South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Agent Scott Hardee and Georgetown County Investigator Melvyn Garrett. Collins agreed to speak with the investigators.
Hardee used a personal video camera to record much of the three-hour interview, though he said that a dead battery caused several minutes of missing footage. The investigators said that they Mirandized Collins, allowed him to take breaks, and didn’t restrain, detain, or threaten him. They added that Collins could’ve used his cell phone at any time.
Garrett testified that he told Collins that no matter what Collins said during the interview, he was going home that day. He said that while he and Hardee told Collins that they would ask for leniency if Collins cooperated and provided information that helped solve the case, they never promised leniency.
Hardee said that he told Collins that the taped interview wasn’t leaving the room, though the investigator knew differently. He also said that he used Nesmith to lure Collins to Town Hall.
Confronted with inconsistencies in his story, Collins admitted that Cohen offered to pay him for burning down the trailer home, and that he was at the scene, but blamed Miller for starting the blaze.
At trial, Collins testified that he didn’t understand his Miranda rights, that he could barely read, and that investigators never read his rights to him. He said that he didn’t feel free to leave town hall.
After the trial court found that Collins’ statements were made knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently, he was convicted of first-degree arson and criminal conspiracy, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Cohen received 35 years. Miller was also charged but never stood trial—in 2015 he was shot dead by Coombs’ older brother.
Transcending guilt or innocence
On appeal, Collins argued that under the totality of circumstances his statement was inadmissible because he’d been coerced and tricked by the officers’ assertions that they wouldn’t use the statement against him and that he was “not built” for the decades that he could spend in prison.
South Carolina hadn’t yet addressed the voluntariness of statements made after police assure confidentiality, but case law requires the state to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant had waived his rights, even where he was Mirandized and signed a waiver of rights form.
The appeals court was persuaded by other jurisdictions that have found statements inadmissible where they were given only after authorities promised that they would not be used against them, assurances that would render Miranda meaningless.
“First, like the Georgia, Colorado and Alabama courts, we believe that if a defendant receives Miranda warnings and it is thereafter conveyed to him during the interview that his statement, whether in whole or in part, would not be used against him and/or is being obtained for some other purpose, such may render the statement inadmissible,” Huff wrote.
Huff wrote that even if one of the investigator’s assurances, alone, wouldn’t perhaps render the inculpatory statements inadmissible, the totality of the circumstances—the standard by which the court is bound—showed that Collins’ will was overborn by the coercive and deceptive tactics used against him.
And where a defendant’s will is overborne and “his capacity for self-determination critically impaired,” admitting the resulting confession offends due process, Huff wrote, citing the state Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in State v. Saltz.
The appeals court noted that Collins suffered from a mental deficiency and physical health issues (he’d recently suffered a stroke) that could’ve impaired his cognitive abilities. As noted in the 1960 Alabama Supreme Court decision in Blackburn v. Alabama, courts should “enforce the strongly felt attitude of our society that important human values are sacrificed when an agency of the government, in the course of securing a conviction, wrings a confession out of an accused against his will.”
“We agree with Appellant that, though interrogating officers may sometimes make false representations concerning the facts surrounding the crime without rendering an ensuing confession coerced, they cannot make false promises, whether direct or implied, that induce a confession from the individual,” Huff wrote.
Attorney General Alan Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Matthews of Columbia, and Solicitor Jimmy Richardson of Conway represented the state. Attorney General spokesperson Robert Kittle declined to comment because the state is planning to appeal.
Brandon Gaskins of Moore & Van Allen in Charleston and Appellate Defender Robert Dudek of Columbia represented Collins.
Gaskins said that the decision could help prevent future confusion and that the lesson for police is clear.
“False promises of confidentiality or leniency in sentencing cannot be tolerated,” Gaskins said. “Miranda warnings have meaning, and once given, they are not a license to mislead suspects through contradictory promises of confidentiality.”
The 18-page decision is State v. Collins (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-078-21). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.