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California Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction and Death Sentence Because Police Failed To Honor Defendant’s Request for Counsel

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of California reversed the murder conviction and death sentence of Paul Nathan Henderson because the police continued to question him after he made an unambiguous request for counsel.

Henderson was arrested on July 5, 1997, in connection with a home invasion of a mobile home that resulted in the death of Reginald Baker and an assault on his wife Peggy Baker.

Detective Wolford and Officer Herrera of the Cathedral City Police Department interviewed him. He waived his Miranda rights. The officers said they were investigating crimes against the Bakers at the Canyon City trailer park on June 22, 1997. When asked if he went to the trailer park, the following exchange occurred:

Henderson: “Uhm, there’s some things that I, uhm, want uh ...”

Wolford: “Did you go to the trailer park, that night?”

Henderson: “[Want], want to speak to an attorney first, because I, I take responsibility for me, but there’s other people that ...”

Herrera: “What do you ...”

Henderson: “I need to find out ...”

Herrera: “Paul.”

Henderson: “I need to find out.”

Herrera: “Paul, what do you accept responsibility for?”

Henderson: No response.

Herrera: “Do you accept responsibility for what happened inside that trailer park? Is that what you[’re] talking about? Do you accept responsibility ...”  

Henderson: “I never ...”

The officers continued with asking him how he took responsibility, pressing him to help himself, to think of his family, and the like. Eventually, Henderson admitted to the crimes.

Henderson moved to exclude his statements from evidence. The trial court denied his motions. It found that he had validly waived his Miranda rights and that he did not unambiguously invoke his right to counsel later in the interview. The court found that Henderson’s statement could have meant he wanted an attorney before answering any further questions or his statement could also have meant he wanted to talk to an attorney about the issue of incriminating others before he would answer questions incriminating others. The court concluded that since there were several reasonable interpretations that could be placed on Henderson’s statement about an attorney it wasn’t an unambiguous or unequivocal request as defined in Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994). 

Henderson was convicted of numerous felonies, including first degree murder, and sentenced to death. On appeal, he argued, inter alia, that the officers violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as defined by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981).

The California Supreme Court observed that after a defendant has waived his Miranda rights he may reinvoke them during the interrogation, and if he clearly and unequivocally does so, police must immediately stop all questioning. Edwards. Police may not resume questioning until counsel is provided or the suspect reinitiates contact. Id. Edwards sets forth a bright-line rule that all questioning must cease after an accused invokes his or her right to counsel. Smith v. Illinois, 469 U.S. 91 (1984). Without such a rule, the authorities – through badgering overreaching – might wear down an accused and persuade him to incriminate himself even though he had requested counsel. Id. 

Ambiguous or equivocal references to an attorney are not sufficient. Davis. The suspect must express his desire for counsel with sufficient clarity that a reasonable police officer would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney. Davis. When determining if a suspect’s request is clear and unambiguous, courts may not look to his responses to questions after the request to determine if counsel was requested. Smith.

However, statements like “maybe I should talk to a lawyer” or “it would probably be a good idea for me to get an attorney” are equivocal statements and are not a clear statement that the accused is requesting an attorney. Davis.

In the instant case, Henderson’s request for counsel was clear. Merely because he stated why he wanted counsel (he wanted to take responsibility and he wanted counsel before incriminating others) did not make his request ambiguous, according to the Court. Questioning should have immediately ceased at that point, and any statement made by him afterward should have been suppressed. Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98 (2010).

The erroneous admission of statements made in violation of the Fifth Amendment is reviewed under Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), which requires the People “to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained.” The standard is satisfied only if “[t]here is no reasonable possibility that the verdict would have been more favorable to defendant had [the] statements not been admitted.” People v. Bradford, 939 P.2d 259 (Cal. 1997). Confessions are highly persuasive evidence of a defendant’s guilt. People v. Cahill, 853 P.2d 1037 (Cal. 1993). 

The Court noted that Henderson’s statements were the “centerpiece of the prosecution’s” evidence to prove the identity of the perpetrator of the crimes. Thus, the Court concluded that the People failed to meet its burden under Chapman. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment in its entirety and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. See: People v. Henderson, 2020 Cal. LEXIS 4869 (2020). 

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