Interrogation tossed out in Betts case
Jurors in the upcoming murder trial in the death of principal Brian Betts will not be permitted to watch a video of the defendant being interrogated by detectives, according to a judge's order made public Thursday.
The ruling, issued by a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge who cited police mistakes, is a victory for Alante Saunders, 19, the first of four defendants set to be tried on charges of killing Betts, a popular middle-school principal in the District.
The Saunders trial, scheduled to start Nov. 15, will be followed by separate trials for the three remaining suspects.
Just how significant the victory is for Saunders isn't clear. There is no indication Saunders admitted to participating in the April murder. And if prosecutors were allowed to play the video at trial, jurors would hear Saunders make repeated comments about how he wanted to quit talking.
"I don't have anything else to say," he said at one point. And "I ain't saying nothing else."
Prosecutors have other evidence against Saunders, according to police accounts filed in court. His fingerprints were found on the outside and inside of Betts’s SUV, which was stolen from Betts’s driveway the night he was killed inside his house.
After the murder, meanwhile, surveillance cameras captured Saunders's image during transactions made with Betts’s credit cards, according to police accounts.
At issue in the judge's order was when and how two Montgomery County detectives informed Saunders of his Miranda rights to remain silent and have an attorney present.
Saunders was arrested on May 3. He was ushered into an interview area at the Montgomery police headquarters – a small room with three chairs, a table and video and audio monitoring.
Prior to telling Saunders his Miranda rights, a detective asked him simple, biographical questions, such as his name and age, according to portions of the interrogation revealed at a court hearing last week. Those basic questions were considered fair game prior to Sanders being advised of his rights.
But during this "pre-Miranda" phase of the interview, a second detective suddenly laid out information about the case and warned Saunders that his friends were in legal peril -- statements that were "reasonably likely to elicit some response from the defendant," wrote Circuit Judge John W. Debelius.
Saunders indeed made an incriminating statement: "I know about the credit cards," he said.
That became problematic, Debelius wrote, particularly given the "tone" and "timing" by the police. The detectives should have halted the interrogation for a significant time period, and possibly moved it to a new room, to indicate a clear break, according to the judge.
Instead, the detectives gave Saunders his Miranda rights and immediately harkened back to his pre-Miranda, incriminating statement. The move "evidences an effort on the part of the police to entice the defendant to give a new, similarly incriminating statement, post Miranda warning," Debelius wrote. "Absent some curative measures, such conduct on the part of the interviewers under these circumstances renders the Miranda warnings ineffective."
In previous hearings, prosecutors have said they did not know if they would play the video of Saunders at his trial. The ruling means they have no choice. It also forbids prosecutors from showing jurors a written transcript of the video.
David Felsen, Saunders's attorney, argued in court last week that the detectives didn't provide his client with a clear explanation of his rights. "The giving of the Miranda rights is ineffective," he said. "Its gutted."
Assistant State's Attorney Mary Herdman said Saunders volunteered the credit card comment before any formal interrogation began.
"It's a blurt by the defendant," she said.
Detectives then provided Saunders his Miranda rights, Herdman said, and entered into the substantive part of the interview.
-- Dan Morse
| October 21, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories: Dan Morse, From the Courthouse, Montgomery, Updates
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