June 01, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Berghuis v. Thompkins

On June 1, the Supreme Court decided Berghuis v. Thompkins, No. 08-1470, holding that a defendant's post-Miranda silence during most of a three-hour interrogation did not constitute invocation of his right to remain silent before he made incriminating statements at the end of the interrogation. The Court also held that the defendant's lawyer did not render ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecution's insinuation that a jury's earlier verdict in favor of another person who was involved in the crime was incorrect and failing to ask for a curative instruction, because the other evidence against the defendant was very strong and it is unlikely that an objection and curative instruction would have made any difference in the outcome.

Van Chester Thompkins was accused of shooting two people. One of them died, the other survived. Police testified that after ascertaining that Thompkins spoke and understood English, they read him the Miranda warnings and gave him a written version of those warnings, along with a request that he sign the written version. Thompkins verbally confirmed that he understood his rights, but he refused to sign the form. The police then began to interrogate him. Thompkins never said that he wanted to remain silent or that he wanted an attorney. He was largely silent throughout the interrogation, except near the end, when one of the officers asked: "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?" Thompkins answered: "Yes."

The State of Michigan charged Thompkins with first-degree murder and other offenses. At trial, the State argued that Thompkins did the shooting from the passenger seat of a van that was driven by another man, Eric Purifoy. The State had previously tried Purifoy for aiding and abetting the shooting, but the jury acquitted Purifoy of that charge. Purifoy testified at Thompkins's trial that he did not see who fired the shots. In closing argument, the prosecutor attacked Purifoy's credibility, and suggested that the jury that acquitted him reached the wrong decision. Thompkins's lawyer did not object to that argument, and did not ask the judge for a limiting instruction that the jury could consider the outcome of Purifoy's trial only to assess Purifoy's credibility, and not to establish Thompkins's guilt. The jury found Thompkins guilty on all counts.

Thompkins's conviction was affirmed on direct review in state court. He filed a habeas petition in federal court. The district court rejected Thompkins's claims, but the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the state court had unreasonably rejected his claim that the police violated his Fifth Amendment rights through their continued interrogation in the face of his refusal to speak, and also unreasonably rejected his claim that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecutor's argument and ask for a curative instruction.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed on both grounds. First, the Court held that Thompkins's mere silence in the face of questioning did not constitute an invocation of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent that would have cut off the police's ability to question him. An assertion of rights must be "unambiguous," and the police are not required to end an interrogation, or ask questions to clarify a suspect's intentions, if the suspect makes an "amgibuous or equivocal" statement, or no statement at all, about his rights. Moreover, the Court held, once the State established that Thompkins received and understood his Miranda warnings, his later uncoerced statement constituted a valid waiver of his Fifth Amendment rights. Thompkins's actions and words in answering questions at the end of his interrogation allowed the officers to infer waiver of his Miranda rights.

Second, the Court held that Thompkins's ineffective-assistance claim failed on de novo review (and therefore would have failed on the more deferential standard of review normally used in habeas cases) because Thompkins failed to show that it was reasonably likely that an objection or a curative instruction in response to the prosecutor's remarks in closing argument would have made any difference in the ultimate result at trial. The other evidence against Thompkins was simply too strong for the prosecutor's argument to have changed the outcome.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined.

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