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Appellate Court Rules Confession Was Involuntary

A confession to the charged crime can be compelling evidence for the prosecution in a criminal case. In the United States, the government cannot force someone to confess to a crime, or even to give statements which may be incriminating. Statements a person makes voluntarily, however, can generally be used by the government in a criminal prosecution of that person. When a prosecutor seeks to use an incriminating statement against a defendant in a criminal case over objection, the prosecution must first show that the statement was voluntary. Particular scrutiny is afforded for statements made by a person who was in police custody when making the statement. In those situations, typically, a person must be first informed of the right to remain silent and right to counsel.

In the recent Tennessee case of State v. Hernandez, M2013-01321-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 7-29-2014), the Court of Criminal Appeals found the evidence preponderated against a trial court ruling that the confession of an intellectually disabled non-English speaking defendant in police custody was voluntary.

In the Hernandez case, the defendant, a native of Honduras, was suspected of the crime of rape of a child. The defendant did not speak or understand English. During the investigation, police took the defendant to an interview room at police headquarters where he was handcuffed until officers interviewed him there. Prior to the interview, a rough translation of Miranda rights was provided by a Spanish-speaking police officer and the defendant responded that he understood.

In contesting the admissibility of the interview at trial, the defense presented the expert testimony of a neuropsychologist, Dr. Antonio Puente, who specialized in treating Spanish-speaking people from Central America. The expert testified about the defendant's low level of intellectual functioning and communication impairment. He also testified that the translation of the rights provided to the defendant by the police was especially poor, characterizing it as "Spanglish" rather than Spanish. Dr. Puente said he had difficulty understanding the translation himself. Dr. Puente further testified regarding the defendant's lack of education and lack of prior experience which would provide any understanding of the criminal justice system in the United States.

The Court of Criminal Appeals, reviewing the testimony, disagreed with the trial court's findings that the defendant was not in custody, was of average intelligence, and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded the defendant's incriminating statements had not been shown to be voluntary and should not have been admissible. However, the Court found the admission of the statements to be harmless error in light of the other admissible evidence of guilt.

For more information on when a confession may or may not be admissible in a criminal case, contact Hindman & Associates.

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