Aug 16 (Reuters) - Homicide detectives should have stopped
questioning a criminal suspect who said that his father had
advised him to ask for a lawyer, a federal appeals court ruled
A divided 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that Tio Dinero Sessoms had
asserted his right to an attorney when he relayed his father's
advice to the officers. The ruling requires police honor even
ambiguous requests for counsel that a suspect makes before being
informed of the right to an attorney, known as Miranda rights.
The case dates back to a 1999 home burglary in Sacramento,
California, in which one of Sessoms' accomplices committed a
murder. Sessoms fled from California to Oklahoma where, at the
urging of his father, he surrendered to police.
During his interrogation, Sessoms was recorded on video
saying "There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have
a...a lawyer present while we do this?" He continued with, "My
dad asked me to ask you guys...uh, give me a lawyer."
The detectives told Sessoms that having a lawyer would only
hurt him and would also be futile because his accomplices had
divulged everything. The officers then read Sessoms his Miranda
rights, which he waived, proceeding to implicate himself in the
crime. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in
prison without the possibility of parole.
On appeal, both a California state appeals court and a
three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit found that the state had
not violated Sessoms' right to a lawyer because his requests
were too ambiguous. But a larger panel of the 9th Circuit
"Although it was couched in a polite and diffident manner,
the meaning of Sessoms's request was clear: he wanted a lawyer
then and there," Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for a six-judge
majority. Even if the request had been ambiguous, suspects are
held to a lower standard of clarity before they waive their
Miranda rights, the majority concluded.
Five judges on the panel dissented, saying requests for an
attorney must be clear both before and after the Miranda warning
is given, and Sessoms failed to meet that burden.
"A reasonable jurist could conclude that telling a detective
'My dad told me to ask for a lawyer' is different than saying 'I
want an attorney,'" Judge Mary Murguia wrote for the dissenters.
The 9th Circuit sent the case back to the lower court for
Sessoms to be retried or released.
A spokeswoman for the California Attorney General's Office
said prosecutors were reviewing the decision and declined
"If we had lost, it would have been a substantial erosion of
the Miranda rights," said Eric Weaver, a lawyer for Sessoms. He
said the decision prevents police from using an ambiguous
request as an opportunity to engage in further questioning and
talk defendants out of exercising their right to a lawyer.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had
supported Sessoms in the case, arguing that no "magic words" are
required to assert the right to counsel.
The case is Sessoms v. Runnels, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, No. 08-17790.
For Sessoms: Eric Weaver of the Law Offices of Eric Weaver.
For Runnels: Jeffrey Firestone of the California Attorney
For the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers:
Peter Pfaffenroth of Sidley Austin.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes)
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