When does the persuasive conduct of a law enforcement officer go too far in attempting to convince a suspect to confess? According to California’s First District Court of Appeals that occurs when the officer’s enticements go from mere advice or exhortation that it would be better to tell the truth, to statements that would give the defendant the understanding that he might reasonably expect the benefit of more lenient treatment for making a truthful statement.
In this case, the defendant and his girlfriend allegedly hatched a plan to rob unsuspecting men. The plan was for the defendant’s girlfriend to lure the men from a bar to a nearby vacant apartment by posing as a prostitute willing to have sex with them. The defendant would then come into the vacant apartment and rob the victims. On August 19, 2005, the victim was drinking at the bar with friends when he was contacted by the defendant’s girlfriend. As had been planned, she posed as a prostitute and asked the victim if he wanted to “have a fiesta.” The victim agreed and followed her to the nearby vacant apartment. She led the victim to a bedroom, helped him to remove his pants, and left the room, telling the victim she was going to get a condom. While she was out of the room, the defendant came in armed with a steak knife to “scare” the victim. The defendant’s girlfriend testified she heard the defendant asking the victim where his money was, and the victim responding that he had none. She went back into the bedroom just in time to see the defendant removing the steak knife from the victim’s chest. The defendant and his girlfriend fled the apartment, taking the victim’s pants and wallet with them.
The following morning, police found the victim’s dead body lying face down at the bottom of the stairs at the apartment complex wearing only his underwear and socks. Subsequent investigation by the police led them to a bouncer at the bar who identified the victim’s girlfriend as the person seen leaving the bar with the victim. He remembered her from previous visits to the same bar. Police served a search warrant at the defendant’s residence and arrest both he and his girlfriend. The defendant and his girlfriend were interviewed separately. The defendant’s girlfriend soon admitted to her involvement in the killing and implicated the defendant as well.
Armed with the information from the police investigation, and the defendant’s girlfriend’s confession, a detective conducted a brief 42 minute interview of the defendant. After advising the defendant of his right to remain silent, the detective immediately told the defendant he already knew what happened based on the girlfriend’s statement. The detective told the defendant he believed this was probably a robbery gone bad and that this was the defendant’s opportunity to “set the record straight” and convince the detective that he was not a “bad guy” who had set out that night to kill. The detective told the defendant, “Don’t go hemming yourself up on a life case when it doesn’t need to be.” Seemingly prompted by the detective’s statement, the defendant asked numerous times if he was going to receive a life sentence. The detective essentially explained to the defendant that his situation could be improved if he were honest and expressed remorse. He prompted the defendant several times to explain how this robbery “went bad.” The detective never told the defendant outright that he would receive a lesser sentence for telling the truth, but he did tell him that truthfulness was the “only thing” that would “help him out.” He also told the defendant, “How much trouble you’re in it depends on you.” When the defendant again expressed concern that he was going to be sentenced to life in prison, the detective responded by telling him, “That’s not necessarily true, my friend.” He asked the defendant again, “Why did it go bad…Give me some logical explanation.”
The defendant confessed to the killing, insisting that he didn’t mean to kill the man. He said the victim was stabbed during a struggle. The defendant was convicted of first degree felony murder, second degree robbery, and second degree burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed his conviction on several grounds, one of which was that his confession was involuntary because he believed the detective assured him he would not be subject to life in prison if he confessed to a “robbery gone wrong.” The Court of Appeals ruled against the defendant on every issue, except that his confession was involuntary. The Court found the detective’s explanation of the law to be “materially deceptive.” The detective told the defendant that confessing to a killing during the commission of a robbery would not, by itself, result in a life sentence. He repeatedly told the defendant he could possibly avoid a life sentence by providing some explanation for the murder which did not include premeditation. Because of the felony murder rule, these statements were not true. The felony murder rule essentially says that a killing which occurs during the commission of a felony crime is first degree murder. Finding no circumstances to undermine the implication that the detective’s false promises influenced the defendant’s decision to confess, the court reversed the defendant’s convictions for murder and robbery. The case was remanded back to the trial court for resentencing and further proceedings.
People v. Westmoreland (Feb. 5, 2013) 213 Cal.App.4th 602