WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A criminal suspect who barely spoke -- but said one incriminating word -- during nearly three hours of police interrogation did not invoke his legal right to remain silent, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 5-4 ruling, concluded that the suspect waived his legal right to remain silent when he knowingly and voluntarily made an incriminating one-word answer to an officer’s question.
The high court’s conservative majority ruled that the suspect, who was initially told of his legal rights, never said he wanted to remain silent, did not want to talk with police or wanted an attorney.
The decision was the latest in a series of rulings in recent years by the court’s conservatives that generally side with the police while limiting the rights of criminal suspects.
The suspect, Van Chester Thompkins, was found and arrested in Ohio about a year after a 2000 fatal shooting outside a mall in Southfield, Michigan. Two officers from Southfield went to Ohio to interrogate him.
In nearly three hours of questioning, Thompkins gave a few limited responses, such as “yeah,” “no” or “I don’t know.” He said he did not want a peppermint that officers offered him and said his chair was hard.
About two hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, one officer asked Thompkins if he believed in God. The suspect replied that he did and then answered in response to the next question that he prayed to God.
The police detective then asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” Thompkins answered, “Yes” and then looked away.
Thompkins was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He moved to suppress his incriminating statement during the questioning.
The trial judge, Michigan state courts and a federal judge all ruled against Thompkins. But a U.S. appeals court ruled his persistent silence for nearly three hours offered a clear message to the officers that Thompkins did not wish to waive his legal rights.
Kennedy disagreed and said in the ruling that there was no evidence that the statement by Thompkins had been coerced by the police in violation of his rights.
The court’s four liberal justices dissented.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the holdings in the case marked a substantial, troubling retreat from the protections against compelled self-incrimination under the Supreme Court’s 1966 landmark Miranda decision setting out a suspect’s legal rights during police interrogation.
The Supreme Court case is Berghuis V. Thompkins, 08-1470.
Editing by Vicki Allen