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Michigan Supreme Court: Defendant’s Statements Involuntary and Inadmissible

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Michigan held that Joshua Lamar-James Stewart’s age and his health, along with the timing of the police interrogation and the officers’ tactics that included promises of leniency, racial slurs, a combative tone, and misrepresentation of the evidence against Stewart rendered his statements involuntary and inadmissible.

Stewart was the getaway driver for two men in two robberies. At the first robbery, victim Aaron Foster was shot. A shootout ensued during the second robbery, resulting in two people being shot—victim Daniel Claxton and perpetrator Deontea White. All three were eventually taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital for treatment.

Detroit Police Officer (“DPO”) John Siejutt arrived first with Foster who was pronounced dead on arrival. Claxton arrived second, driven by his brother who had been present at the second robbery. White arrived last, driven by Stewart in a Dodge Intrepid full of bullet holes. Hospital personnel alerted Siejutt to White and the shot-up Intrepid. After Claxton’s brother identified Stewart as the driver of the Intrepid that had been at the scene of the second robbery, Stewart was arrested.

During the ensuing interrogation, Stewart denied any involvement in the robberies. He consistently stated that he was walking to a Family Dollar Store when he came upon the Intrepid with White bleeding in the backseat. He drove the car and White to the hospital. But owing to the coercive tactics (detailed below) employed by DPO James MacDonald and Detective Kelly Lucie, Stewart eventually admitted to driving the Intrepid during both robberies but denied knowing the other two men were armed or that he knew they intended to commit the robberies.

Stewart was charged with several felonies, and he moved prior to trial to suppress his statements to police. The trial court denied his motion to suppress and a jury convicted Stewart of multiple felonies, including assault with intent to commit murder. On appeal, Stewart argued his statements were involuntary because of coercive interrogation techniques and promises of leniency, and the statements should have been excluded at trial. The Court of Appeals (“COA”) disagreed and affirmed his convictions. The Michigan Supreme Court granted Stewart’s application to appeal.

The Court observed both “the United States and Michigan Constitutions protect citizens against self-incrimination and afford due process of law.” U.S. Const., Am. V and XIV; Const 1963, art. 1, § 17. “The use of an involuntary statement elicited by coercive state action in a criminal trial violates these constitutional protections.” People v. Cipriano, 429 N.W.2d 781 (Mich. 1988). “If an individual’s will was overborne or if his confession was not the product of a rational intellect and a free will, his confession is inadmissible because [it was] coerced.” Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293 (1963).

“Coercive tactics that can overbear an individual’s will include both physical intimidation and psychological pressure.” Id. Reviewing courts must consider “whether the totality of the circumstances surrounding the making of the confession indicates that it was freely and voluntarily made.” Cipriano. Specifically, these include “the age of the accused; his lack of education or his intelligence level; the extent of his previous experience with the police; the repeated and prolonged nature of the questioning; the length of the detention of the accused before he gave the statement in question; the lack of any advice to the accused of his constitutional rights; whether there was an unnecessary delay in bringing him before a magistrate before he gave the confession; whether the accused was injured, intoxicated, or drugged, or in ill health when he gave the statement; whether the accused was deprived of food, sleep, or medical attention; whether the accused was physically abused; and whether the accused was threatened with abuse.” Id.

Additionally, “promises of leniency can render a confession involuntary,” People v. Conte, 365 N.W.2d 648 (Mich. 1984), as can misrepresentation about the evidence against the accused and the strength of the prosecution’s case. State v. Baker, 465 P.3d 860 (Haw. 2020). Finally, an officer’s combative tone and use of racial slurs designed to belittle an accused are factors to be considered in determining voluntariness. Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596 (1948). “When the voluntariness of a confession is challenged, ‘the burden is on the people to demonstrate voluntariness by a preponderance of the evidence.’” Conte.

Considering the Cipriano factors, the Court stated that Stewart “was 18 years old at the time of the interrogation. While this renders the defendant an adult under the law, we have elsewhere recognized that 18-year-olds are still undergoing physiological and neurological maturation, meaning their decision-making abilities are not fully developed.” People v. Parks, 987 N.W.2d 161 (Mich. 2022). “In the context of a police interrogation, as here, these characteristics may lead an interrogee to prioritize immediate benefits over long-term consequences—resulting in behaviors such as falsely confessing in exchange for release—or to comply with the authority or perceived desires of police officers regardless of consequences.” JDB v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011).

Officers in the present case made frequent and repeated references to Stewart’s young age, ridiculing the depth of his voice and telling him to “man up” when he requested to call his mother. Regarding the length of the interrogation, the Court observed that the three-hour duration was not excessive. However, since the interrogation occurred between 3:36 a.m. and 6:41 a.m. and there was no indication that Stewart had slept prior to arriving at the hospital earlier the prior evening, the Court inferred that sleep deprivation “during those early morning hours affected defendant’s decision-making abilities.”

With regard to Stewart’s health, the Court observed there was indication in the record that he was suffering from the ill-effects of cancer treatment, “including weight loss and inhibited movement that may have affected his ability to endure interrogation.” The remaining Cipriano factors were either neutral or favored voluntariness.

But other factors beyond those of Cipriano may also support a finding of involuntariness, according to the Court. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973). Particularly, the repeated and specific references to leniency were problematic. During the interrogation, the officers did not explicitly promise leniency, but they repeatedly implied that if Stewart would “man up,” “take responsibility,” and “be truthful,” he could get a sentence as little as two years, but if he kept to his original story, then he would get 20 to life. “Such promises or inducements can render a confession involuntary as they may ‘excite hopes … that [the defendant] may be materially benefitted by making disclosures [and] can undermine a defendant’s ability to make an autonomous decision to confess,’” according to the Court. Commonwealth v. Baye, 967 N.E.2d 1120 (Mass. 2012). Prior to giving his inculpatory statements, Stewart’s comments and his repetition of the “two years” versus “20 years” indicated that this promised leniency was a decisive factor in his decision to implicate himself, the Court stated.

Also, during the interrogation, the officers lied to Stewart about the extent of the evidence against him. The officers stated there was an eyewitness as well as video evidence placing Stewart at the robberies. Exaggeration of the strength of the case against an accused “weighs against a finding that defendant’s inculpatory statements were made of a free and voluntary mind.” Baker. Finally, during the interrogation, the officers persistently used foul language and racial slurs (referring to Stewart with the n-word) and took a combative tone, repeatedly telling Stewart to “man up,” accusing him of “getting smart with them,” and threatening him with “you don’t want to battle [with me].”

The Court summarized as follows: “The totality of the circumstances of defendant’s interrogation—including his age, the timing of the interrogation, the officers’ references to leniency, the officers’ use of falsehoods, and the officers’ overall tone and use of language—created an environment in which defendant’s free will was overborne and the statements he gave were involuntary.” The Court concluded that while any one of the above-referenced circumstances might be insufficient to render Stewart’s statements involuntary, when considered collectively and cumulatively, the circumstances were “such that defendant’s statements were not freely and voluntarily made.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the COA, ruled Stewart was entitled to a new trial, and remanded for proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: People v. Stewart, 2023 Mich. LEXIS 1151 (2023).  

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