High Court Ruling Hits Home Quickly; Miranda Expansion Leads Judge To Bar Tape in D.C. Murder Case

Moments before a murder trial was to begin yesterday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. halted the proceedings and threw out a videotaped statement by the defendant, citing a Supreme Court ruling issued less than 24 hours earlier.

Jurors in the case were sent home, and federal prosecutors are now working to determine if they will appeal the judge’s decision in the case of 19-year-old Lowell Green, who was charged in the 1988 shooting death of a District man.

Kennedy’s dramatic decision underscored the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling Monday in Minnick v. Mississippi, which flatly prohibits police officers from questioning suspects outside the presence of their attorneys once the suspects have asked for legal representation.

Even as Kennedy acted, prosecutors and defense lawyers throughout the Washington area were speculating on whether the Supreme Court ruling would limit authorities in their investigations and how broad its impact would be.

The 6 to 2 ruling marked a broadening of the court’s famous 1966 Miranda decision, which requires that criminal suspects be advised of their rights to remain silent and to consult with a lawyer.

Monday’s decision asserted that even after a suspect has spoken to a lawyer, police may not try to question the suspect again unless the lawyer is present.

Defense lawyers hailed the Supreme Court ruling, but said its effect probably would be limited to high-profile cases in which authorities press lengthy investigations.

“The ones it will affect are the larger cases, where police, in their zeal to close a case, are willing to go back a second time and try to get a defendant to waive the presence of an attorney and talk to them,” said defense lawyer G. Allen Dale. “The court in Minnick established a bright-line rule of law. They are not leaving it open to police or lower courts. When {the suspect} asks for a lawyer, the questioning is over.”

Rockville defense lawyer Barry Helfand said the ruling could have serious implications for the way police work. After suspects have asked for a lawyer, police often start casual conversations with them or seek to gather “booking information,” such as the suspect’s name and address,Helfand said.

“That starts a colloquy between the officer and defendant . . . and then somebody starts to talk {about the crime} and blurts something out,” he said. The ruling would prevent such situations from developing, Helfand said.

Prosecutors differed on just how much effect it would have.

“It’s too early to tell . . . but the potential impact will depend on how the lower courts interpret the scope of the Supreme Court’s decision,” said U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens, whose office is prosecuting Green.

According to sources familiar with the case, Green was in custody after pleading guilty to a 1989 drug charge and was being evaluated for a special youth program when police arrested him on a murder charge.

Green already had a lawyer in the drug case, but waived his rights and gave a videotaped statement to police about the death of Cheaver Harriett, who was shot and killed Dec. 30, 1988, in an apparent robbery.

Last week, Kennedy turned down a defense request to suppress that statement. But yesterday, after reading the Minnick ruling, he reversed himself and threw out the statement.

Stephens said his office has 30 days to determine if it will appeal.

The U.S. attorney said the “critical issue” in the Supreme Court’s ruling is whether more judges will apply it to situations such as the Green case, where a defendant obtains an attorney on one charge but is questioned in an unrelated case.

If such questioning is barred, “the Minnick ruling could have a substantial impact on law enforcement. That is a very expansive reading of the case,” Stephens said.

But Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. and his Prince William County counterpart, Paul B. Ebert, said the effect would be relatively minor.

“I think that is basically the feeling we operate under already,” Ebert said of the rule articulated in Minnick. Horan said cases in which suspects consult with lawyers and later agree to further questioning by police are rare.

Richard Wintory, of the National District Attorneys Association, agreed, but added that the decision would further erode the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.

“This is going to cause the average citizen to say, `This doesn’t make any sense,’ ” said Wintory, a former prosecutor in Oklahoma. “We are talking about turning a factually guilty person loose without any consideration of how voluntary a confession was.”