Tenn. Judge Tosses Teen's Confession Over Miranda

A Shelby County judge tossed out the confession of a teen who admitted setting a fatal house fire.

A Shelby County judge filed an order Friday explaining why he tossed out the confession of a teen who admitted setting a house fire that killed his mother after she grounded him.

Juvenile Court Special Judge Dan Michael said he considered 14-year-old murder suspect Jonathan Ray's age, experience, education and intelligence as well as Shelby County Sheriff's investigators actions before agreeing with the teen's attorney, Robert Gowen, that Ray wasn't properly informed of his Miranda rights to remain silent or have an attorney by his side before he answered questions about the fatal arson April 5 inside the family's Hickory Hill home.

Firefighters found Ray's mother, U.S. Postal Service letter carrier Gwendolyn Wallace, 45, dead on the second floor. The fire had been set at the base of the stairs, trapping her exit, according to a sheriff deputy's affidavit.

Ray told investigators he didn't know who started the fire, blaming a white man named Drake, before finally confessing through tears to using gasoline to set the blaze after his mother grounded him, according to prior court testimony and court records.

Michael, who reviewed the hours-long video of the teen's interrogation and a transcript of the police interview, said the video "speaks volumes" that "the failure to meet the constitutional minimums of Miranda are so obvious."

The judge, in his written order, said the teen had no arrest record and, therefore, wasn't familiar with Miranda rights. In an unrelated incident, he had only received a warning letter for a summons alleging disorderly conduct.

Defense attorney Blake Ballin, who is not working on the Ray case, said of the judge's ruling: "It's an example of our judicial system working properly."

He said suspects often feel intimidated during long interrogations.

"You're in a room with this officer who has all this power, usually has a weapon and has the ability to lock you up," the attorney said. "These rights, which we've all heard on TV a million times, are designed to level the playing field a little."

Northwestern Law School professor Steven Drizin, who is not associated with the Ray case but is a national expert on police interrogations, said he was "stunned" by the actions of sheriff's investigators.

"I've been reading confession cases and evaluating Miranda for the better part of 15 years, and I've never seen a case where police officers don't read the suspect Miranda rights, especially in a juvenile case.

"You can't just give someone words on a page."

National studies show that juveniles are more susceptible to police tactics, and more vulnerable to giving false confessions.

In a segment of the video of Ray's interview that was played in court, Sheriff's Lt. Kevin Helms hands Ray a waiver of Miranda rights and tells him that his "dad" had already signed it, giving investigators permission to question the teen. That man was James Wallace, the teen's stepfather who didn't have legal custody. The teen's father was in Detroit, unaware of the death or his son's legal predicament.

"Really they didn't make sure he could read and comprehend the Miranda warnings they handed him," Ballin said. "And on top of that, what was probably most troubling is the coercive methods used by the officer: 'These rights don't really mean anything, your father has already said it's OK.' "

Prosecutor Dan Byer, who declined to comment on the ruling, has announced his intent to seek transfer of Ray to adult court on felony first-degree murder charges, but he'll have to make his case during a transfer hearing June 12 without the videotaped confession. During previous hearings, he has not mentioned any eyewitnesses to the arson.

"I think it substantially weakens their case for proving that he did it and if he did it, why he did it," Ballin said.

Prosecutors aren't required to prove motive in murder cases, but Ballin said jurors often want to know the reason why before sending someone to prison for life.

Copyright 2013 - The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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