Wednesday, October 10, 2012

If Police Deny Assistance of Counsel During Interrogations, Confessions Cannot Be Used In Court: Escobedo v. Illinois (1964)

Mugshot of Danny Escobedo, January 1960

Police must inform criminal suspects of their right to remain silent when they are in custody and they must honor a suspect's request to speak with an attorney prior to interrogation. But, this was not always the case. Two landmark rulings from the mid-1960s changed that. The lesser known of the two will be discussed here:

On the night of January 19, 1960, a Chicago man was murdered. This man happened to be the brother-in-law of Danny Escobedo. Early the next morning, Mr. Escobedo was arrested and interrogated. Being a wise suspect, he did not say anything to the police--he did not confirm or deny any wrongdoing. Since he was arrested without a warrant and there was little probable cause to hold him, the police released him from custody on the afternoon of January 20.

A few days later, a man named Benedict DiGerlando was brought into custody and interrogated for the murder of Mr. Escobedo's brother-in-law. Mr. DiGerlando was not as savvy as Mr. Escobedo, and he told police that Mr. Escobedo had shot and killed his brother-in-law because he was regularly beating Mr. Escobedo's sister.

So, on January 30, Mr. Escobedo was brought in again for questioning. This time, the police also brought in his sister, Grace. The police informed Mr. Escobedo of Mr. DiGerlando's statement. Mr. Escobedo once again refused to speak with the police and asked for his attorney. The police refused his request, despite telling him he was in police custody and was not free to leave.

Mr. Escobedo's attorney went to the police station and asked to meet with his client. This request was also denied.

The police interrogated Mr. Escobedo for the next 14 hours and repeatedly refused to allow him to meet with his attorney. During the course of the interrogation, Mr. Escobedo never confessed. However, he made a number of statements that accidentally revealed his knowledge of the circumstances of the crime. That revelation of knowledge amounted to a confession.

Based on his confession during the second interrogation, Mr. Escobedo was convicted of murder. He appealed his conviction, arguing his Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel (made obligatory to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) had been violated. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld his conviction.

However, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear his case. In 1964, the Court reversed his conviction because he was, in fact, denied his Constitutional Right to Counsel. They held that any statements made  while being denied that basic right could not be used against him in a criminal trial. The Court also found it troubling that Mr. Escobedo had never been advised of his right to remain silent (Fifth Amendment) -- Keep in mind, this was pre-Miranda, which was settled in 1966.

At first glance, this case does not seem to have much to do with forensic psychology--there was no argument that Mr. Escobedo was incompetent or had no idea of his Constitutional Rights. In fact, he appeared to be a highly competent suspect and was vigorously attempting to exercise his rights. But, I have worked on a number of cases, in the 2010s, 50 years after Escobedo v. Illinois and Miranda v. Arizona, where the police have not informed suspects of their rights. I have watched police interrogation videos where suspects spill their guts about the crime but have never been reminded of their Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights. Often, attorneys will miss this key procedural misstep because they are focused on other issues, mainly damage control--how can they defend a client who has just confessed to the police? When I point out the lack of Miranda warning, attorneys then have the ability to enter a motion to suppress the confession, as it was obtained illegally.

Interestingly, the Escobedo case is largely forgotten in the public sphere, since the Miranda ruling came only two years later. Where Escobedo focused mainly on the right to counsel, Miranda shifted the focus to the right against self-incrimination. And, it is these two cases that have arguably had the greatest impact on police and criminal court procedure in the last half-century.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Thank you for this post, it is ever so timely. I am currently completing a degree in criminology ( Australia) and at this very moment, I am reviewing the abuse of powers in the pre-trial stage of the criminal justice process, including the unfortunate withering of various fundamental common law safeguards; such as the presumption of innocence and the right to silence.

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