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The People v. Samuel Moses Nelson

January 12, 2012

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
SAMUEL MOSES NELSON, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



Ct.App. 4/3 G040151 Orange County Super. Ct. No. 04ZF0072 Judge: Frank F. Fasel

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.

The 15-year-old defendant in this case was tried as an adult and convicted of the murder of 72-year-old Jane Thompson, and of five first degree burglaries relating to the residences of Thompson and two other women. The evidence featured defendant's confessional statements to sheriff's investigators during a custodial interrogation. The investigators had apprised defendant of his right to remain silent and right to have the assistance of counsel pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436 (Miranda),*fn1 and it is undisputed that defendant made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of those rights at the outset of the interrogation. The question is whether defendant made a postwaiver invocation of his Miranda rights by asking several times to speak to his mother or by making certain other statements while being questioned. If he did, then the investigators' failure to stop the interrogation compelled suppression of the statements he made after the invocation.

In Davis v. United States (1994) 512 U.S. 452 (Davis), the United States Supreme Court held that once a suspect has waived his Miranda rights, any subsequent assertion of the right to counsel must be articulated "sufficiently clearly that a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney." (Davis, at p. 459.) This standard likewise applies to assertions of the right to remain silent. (Berghuis v. Thompkins (2010) 560 U.S. __, __ [130 S.Ct. 2250, 2260].)

We hold that juveniles claiming a postwaiver invocation of their Miranda rights are properly subject to the Davis standard. Applying that standard, we conclude the trial court did not err in finding that defendant's requests to speak to his mother and other statements were not sufficiently clear to require cessation of the interrogation. Accordingly, defendant's confessional statements were properly admitted at trial, and the contrary judgment of the Court of Appeal must be reversed.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Defendant Samuel Moses Nelson turned 15 years old in April 2004. Later that month, he burglarized Katherine Parks's home and took two purses. In May 2004, he burglarized Sheryl Adler's home and took two wallets and a checkbook. On June 18, 2004, defendant burglarized the home of his 72-year-old neighbor, Jane Thompson, taking a credit card. On June 26, 2004, Thompson was found dead in her home. The cause of death was massive blunt-force head trauma, with multiple skull fractures and brain hemorrhaging.

On June 28, 2004, investigators Daniel Salcedo and Brian Sutton of the Orange County Sheriff's Department spoke with defendant outside his home. Defendant claimed he had no idea who might have killed Thompson, and said he was willing to take a lie detector test.

After further investigation, Salcedo and Sutton returned to defendant's home on June 29, 2004. Defendant agreed to discuss the case with them, and was driven to the sheriff's office in Santa Ana. In a videotaped interview, the investigators asked some preliminary questions and then advised defendant of his right to counsel and right to remain silent under Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. 436. Defendant affirmed that he understood his rights and expressed a willingness to speak with the investigators.

During the interview, defendant admitted entering Thompson's house and taking some jewelry, her credit card, and her purse. Despite these admissions, he denied responsibility for Thompson's murder. About three and a half hours into the session, the investigators asked defendant if he wanted to take a polygraph test, and defendant asked to call his mother. When the investigators asked the reason for the call, he said he wanted to "let her know what's happening" and also to "talk to her about it" and "see what I should do." The investigators continued with their questions, which defendant answered. As the interrogation progressed and defendant became aware of the evidence against him, he changed his story several times and ultimately confessed to the burglaries of the Parks and Adler residences. He also made additional requests to call his mother and was permitted several times to try to reach her. Although he was unable to contact his mother, he did call and speak to his grandmother and brother. At one point defendant indicated he wanted the investigators to leave him alone because, in his words, they were "getting on me for something I didn't do." At other points defendant declined to take a polygraph test, because his relatives had told him in a telephone call that they did not want him to "take the test" or "do anything" until a lawyer or his mother got there.

Finally, toward the end of the interview, defendant asked to have "a few minutes to myself" and answered affirmatively when investigators offered him a pencil and paper to write down his feelings. The investigators left the room after telling defendant this was his chance to explain what happened and to "[d]o the right thing." On their way out, they again allowed defendant to telephone his mother and brother. When the investigators returned, defendant said he had not written anything and asked, "Do you think I could be alone until my family gets here? They should be here in like 10 minutes?" The investigators told defendant they were "real tired" of his playing games, reiterated he should take this opportunity to say what happened in his own words, and left once more. Defendant then wrote out a statement and later explained that he entered Thompson's house in the middle of the night as she dozed on her living room sofa, and that he used his hammer to strike her head repeatedly when she suddenly stirred.*fn2

Defendant was charged with two counts of first degree burglary relating to the Parks and Adler residences, another three counts of first degree burglary relating to Thompson's residence, and one count of murder. It was also alleged that he personally used a dangerous and deadly weapon and that his crimes against Thompson involved a vulnerable victim.

Defendant filed a motion in limine to exclude his custodial confessions from trial. Specifically, he contended that investigators Salcedo and Sutton violated his Fifth Amendment rights by continuing to interrogate him despite his various requests to speak with his mother and requests to be alone. After the trial court denied this motion, defendant waived his right to a jury and submitted to a bench trial. The court found him guilty as charged.

The Court of Appeal affirmed in part but reversed the convictions relating to the murder and the Parks and Adler burglaries. Based on defendant's age, experience, maturity, sophistication, and the length, intensity, and content of the interrogation, a majority of the court concluded that defendant's purpose in making his first request to speak with his mother was to secure her assistance in protecting his Fifth Amendment rights. Accordingly, it held, any and all statements made after that request were obtained in violation of Miranda, supra, 384 U.S. 436, and inadmissible. Conversely, the dissenting justice would have upheld the admissibility of the confessional statements, because from the perspective of a reasonable officer, defendant did not unambiguously and unequivocally assert his Miranda rights. We granted the People's petition for review.

DISCUSSION

Under California law, issues relating to the suppression of statements made during a custodial interrogation must be reviewed under federal constitutional standards. (People v. Lessie (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1152, 1163-1164 (Lessie).) Before addressing whether defendant invoked his Miranda rights by asking to speak with his mother, we explain why the investigators' questioning of defendant up to that point satisfied those standards.

"Under the Fifth Amendment to the federal Constitution, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, '[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself . . . .' (U.S. Const., 5th Amend.) 'In order to combat [the] pressures [of custodial interrogation] and to permit a full opportunity to exercise the privilege against self-incrimination, the accused must be adequately and effectively apprised of his rights' to remain silent and to have the assistance of counsel. (Miranda, at p. 467.) '[I]f the accused indicates in any manner that he wishes to remain silent or to consult an attorney, interrogation must cease, and any statement obtained from him during interrogation thereafter may not be admitted against him at his trial' [citation], at least during the prosecution's case-in-chief [citations]." (Lessie, supra, 47 Cal.4th at p. 1162.) "Critically, however, a suspect can waive these rights." (Maryland v. Shatzer (2010) 559 U.S. __, __ [130 S.Ct. 1213, ...


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