A Unicorn from the South Carolina Court of Appeals! Reversal Based on Coerced Confession, State v. Randy Collins, Appellate Case No. 2018-02056 (September 8, 2021)
Here’s a result you don’t see very often—a reversal based on a coerced confession. The facts of the case are awful and involve the death of a child by arson. The child’s mother enlisted the appellant here and his associate to torch her trailer for $5,000. The child was in the trailer. The reversible error in this case is the statement taken by law enforcement shortly after appellant became a suspect in the arson.
Appellant became a suspect due to a tip received by law enforcement. This tip also informed law enforcement that the mother had purchased gasoline the day before the fire and that she took out a life insurance policy on her child. It appears this tip was reliable. After receiving the tip, law enforcement approached appellant who denied any knowledge of the events. Law enforcement obtained search warrants for appellant’s two cell phones which showed contact between appellant and the mother, contrary to appellant’s assertions otherwise.
On June 4, 2014, appellant travelled to Town Hall in lovely Andrews, SC to retrieve his phones. While there, Officer Nesmith, Agent Hardee and Investigator Garrett asked to talk to him. He agreed. They read him his Miranda rights and he signed a waiver of those rights at 10:20am. A personal camcorder was set up in the interrogation room to record the interrogation which failed to operate for 10-15 minutes. At the pre-trial hearing, Hardee testified appellant initially denied any knowledge regarding the fire and any contact with the mother. Confronted by the officers, he changed his story. According to Hardee, appellant told them the mother enlisted him to set fire to the trailer for $5,000. He told them his co-defendant, Miller actually performed the dirty deed (Miller was charged in this case but died before trial).
Investigator Garrett essentially corroborated Nesmith’s testimony—appellant initially denied knowledge, but then came around and placed himself at the scene when the fire started. The solicitor played the taped interview for the jury (sans the 10-15 minutes during which nothing of any legal consequence occurred per the officers’ testimonies).
During the pre-trial hearing on the admissibility of the confession, the offers testified as they generally do in these cases—yes, appellant was allowed to use the bathroom if he wanted; no, they didn’t place any handcuffs on him; sure, he could have left whenever he wanted to and he was free to use his cell phone to call anyone he wanted. And oh yeah, he was allowed to smoke cigarettes. The officers did admit they denied him *a* cigarette because they were at an important part of the interview. Officers tend to make these interrogations appear as banal events which they surely never are.
Investigator Garrett acknowledged, however, that he informed appellant “that no matter what he told them… he was going to go home that particular day.” They also told him that if he gave them any assistance that led to the case being solved, they would ask for leniency on his behalf. At the end of this interrogation, the investigator wrote the statement and appellant signed it.
At this hearing, appellant testified he didn’t understand his Miranda rights. In any event, he didn’t recall having them read to him. He only completed 7th or 8th grade, never obtained a GED, and was in special education classes. He also had difficulty remembering things since he suffered a stroke. He didn’t understand he had the right to a lawyer and didn’t have to talk to them. He didn’t realize his statements could be used against him at a trial. He also testified the officers didn’t really threaten him but that they promised to talk to the solicitor on his behalf if he was forthcoming.
In assessing appellant’s claim, the Court of Appeals found it pertinent that during the interrogation, Officer Hardee told appellant, in response to his concern that he would “say the wrong thing,” “Well, you’re not going to say the wrong thing. Whatever you tell me, it ain’t gonna leave this room. This, um, tape is going into my file. And I’m gonna, I’m gonna burn a copy for him … and it ain’t gonna go any further than this room. That’s why we got the door shut, the blinds pulled, there’s no sound device in here. I want you to be honest with me and tell me what you think.”
It was this promise of confidentiality the officers made to appellant that rendered the confession coerced and therefore inadmissible. With no case on point in the South Carolina, the Court of Appeals canvassed other jurisdictions and followed suit. In short, while officers are free to make false claims about evidence in a case, they are not allowed to offer false promises that induce a confession.
The Court also looked at other factors in this case that militated in favor of finding appellant’s will was overborne by the tactics of these officers- the officers repeatedly indicated they would speak to the solicitor on his behalf; stated they were there to “help” appellant; appellant was going to go home after the interrogation regardless of what he said; appellant’s clear intellectual impairment. All things considered, this appears to have been the correct result in this case. Three police officers making overly-optimistic claims to a mentally impaired suspect, while promising that their conversation would remain private is poor policing. I do think it’s an interesting fact, though, that appellant testified that he didn’t feel threatened. Whether this factors into the case at a later point remains to be seen, but I’m quite sure the Attorney General’s Office will be seeking the Supreme Court’s involvement.