Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Lesson in Confessions

by Katherine Scardino

Fade in to a dimly lit small room with a low bulb hanging over a square table. Two hardback, uncomfortable chairs. There is one door to the room with no windows. A young black man is sitting in one of those straight-back chairs facing an older, white man with a badge so big one could not miss it hanging over his belt.

The white man has on stiff, creased Wrangler jeans with shiny polished black cowboy boots and a starched white shirt. His hair is short and graying. His red face is about an inch from the sweating face of the young black man and he is yelling and pounding on the table.

“You know you are lying! Tell me you did it and we can go all go home!”

That is what we generally think of “confessions.” Not very nicely done . . . but productive. However, as with everything else in our lives, I repeat what I have said many times before on Women in Crime Ink - THERE ARE RULES.

When it comes to an accused person giving a statement, here is "The Rule of all rules":

“A statement of an accused may be used in evidence against him if it appears that the same was freely and voluntarily made without compulsion or persuasion under the rules hereafter prescribed.”

We have all heard officers on television (or maybe, even in person) recite your “rights” to you. Those rights are referred to as your “Miranda rights,” a slangy term for the holding in Miranda v. Arizona, a case decided by the Supreme Court in 1966. Two of these rights that must be read to you at the time you are making a statement to the police is that (1) you have the right to have an attorney present to advise you before and during any questioning and (2) you have the right to remain silent and not make any statement at all.

There have been literally thousands of cases citing Miranda v. Arizona, where a defendant is contending that his constitutional rights have been violated in some manner. In most criminal cases, the officer at least makes an attempt to question an accused citizen. This accused citizen either cooperates and tells the officer everything he knows, or he refuses to make a statement.

But, whatever he does, it must be done voluntarily. In other words, the officer cannot beat a confession out of you; he cannot promise you something that he knows he cannot deliver to you (such as your freedom); he cannot withhold your attorney from you if he is there and wants to advise you. You have the constitutional right to refuse to say anything, and especially that which may tend to incriminate you.

I bring all this up to you, because Texas has a Death Row inmate who very recently just hit the jackpot - a Federal judge here in Houston just gave him a new trial. He is currently in the process of being removed from Death Row and returned to the Harris County Jail. His name is Robert Fratta. Our own Kelly Seigler was the prosecutor.

In 1994, Robert Fratta was accused of hiring two men to kill his wife. The couple was going through a very contentious divorce/custody fight during that time, and Fratta apparently made several statements to friends about him wanting her dead.

Fratta’s two co-defendants were Howard Guidry and Joseph Prystash. All three men received death sentences.

In all capital cases where the jury has sentenced an individual to death, there is an automatic direct appeal. The convicted person also has a Federal appellate process available to him as well, and it was through this avenue that Fratta’s case got reversed and a new trial granted.

What is important is why. When the police officers arrested Mr. Guidry and brought him to the police station to question him about the death of this lovely, young woman named Farah Fratta, the officer told Mr. Guidry that he could not see his attorney, and then lied to him and said that the lawyer had given Guidry permission to talk to the officers.

So, he did and confessed to being the triggerman in the killing and to being hired by Mr. Fratta, and also implicating the other accomplice, Prystash. After all the dust settled . . . after all the objections and rulings . . . after all three men went through a jury trial in State court (where Guidry’s confession was admitted into evidence in front of each jury, and other hearsay testimony was admitted, but later ruled to be inadmissible) . . . and after all three defendants were sentenced to death . . . after all the appeals . . . Guidry and Fratta walked out of the appellate maze with a chance at a different verdict in State court.

Guidry has already had his retrial; he heard that one-word verdict and the dreaded death sentence for the second time. But Mr. Fratta’s new trial is yet to come.

In past postings, I have talked about these rights that you and I have and how important they are. I know some of you will start posting your disgust with the criminal justice system immediately upon reading all this. But, remember, the defense lawyer’s objections that were ultimately ruled valid had to do with a police officer not allowing Mr. Guidry to talk to his lawyer and his confession being admitted as evidence in front of all three juries, who then handed down death sentences.

Think about how our system would work if the rules were different. Imagine your son or husband being arrested for suspicion of committing some crime and being placed in similar circumstances.

Does it make a difference in the way the rule works whether the person is guilty or not?

How would anyone know that during that early stage of investigation?

Do you think Fratta should get a new trial because of the behavior of the officer with a co-defendant?

Do you even think Fratta should be sentenced to death when he was not the triggerman?

A lot of questions.


Jan said...

So, the detectives lied to Guidry. And he fell for it. Then confessed. I would imagine there was other evidence to convict these criminals, or was it all considered "fruit of the poison tree"? Somehow I can't find compassion for someone too stupid to keep his mouth shut. Detectives already have a tough enough job without further handcuffing them by removing tools they can use to obtain a confession. Guidry did not HAVE to talk. He chose to talk. So what if the detectives lied to him. Guidry could have sat there and not said a word. Do overs in life are rare, especially for the dead victims.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Scardino - Did you represent any of these men? Will you be defending Fratta in his new trial?

Philly said...

Why don't police detectives have to answer for these infractions? They cost us (taxpayers) millions of dollars in trials and yet they continue making the same stupid mistakes. Surely they know the rules but they flagrantly break them. There should be consequences.

Leah said...

Clearly his civil rights were violated but the Judge is the one responsible for allowing that to happen.

I also agree with Jan. Cops lie all the time and it is acceptable for them to do so which I don't agree with because things like this happen. But, the guy was obviously an idiot for falling for it. Still, it is a waste of taxpayers money.

katherine scardino said...

Good morning everyone! I will respond to those of you who have left postings re. confessions:

Jan: I understand your feelings about that - you are not alone, but we must have rules to live by. That is the basis of our society.

Anonymous: No, I did not represent anyone in the state trials. I have had correspondence from Mr. Fratta, but I have not been appointed and have no reason to believe I would be.

Philly: The cost is enormous and is a big problem when officers step outside the line.

Leah: You are right. If the judge had followed the law when the defense attorney for Guidry filed a Motion to Suppress or when Fratta's lawyer objected to the introduction of one of his co-defendant's statement, then the taxpayers would have saved money, and the system would have worked the way it is supposed to...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

K - I had a reaction to this post on Grits this morning.

Michael said...

Who was the cop? (I never understand why we have photographs of people accused of crimes, but not the bad apples in law enforcement who commit crimes against our Constitution.)

Paul B. Kennedy said...

In this day and age I'd almost call it a miracle that an appellate court threw out any confession. We all know the Texas courts would just call it "harmless error."

Paul B. Kennedy
Attorney at Law

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Katherine, after I linked to your post today, Mark Bennett became grumpy at us, fyi. He says you misread the case.

A Voice of Sanity said...

The comments on other blogs about this case confuse me as the legalities seem very tortured. My thought on those comments here that the ends justify the means is this: the smarter, more informed or braver accused should not receive justice that is so much better than that afforded the easily bullied or confused. Wrong confessions are far, far too common, esp. from the young or the easily manipulated. Perhaps total equality cannot be achieved, but we need at least to strive for it.

FleaStiff said...

Prior to the Miranda Decision, rich defendants knew to keep their yaps shut and call their lawyers. Miranda only extended this to the poor, the ignorant, the easily bullied.

So do you achieve this 'level playing field' by rewarding police for lying cleverly and being deceitful?

If a cop violates the rights of a codefendant, can someone ELSE compalin and seek exclusion of evidence? Normally the courts allow us to assert only our own rights, not the rights of others.

Psychological manipulation to obtain a confession is now the rule. Doesn't mean its good; thats simply the way it is.

Anonymous said...

I have allways loved the way you write and like it even more when you get a "Rise" out of everone!
Keep up the great writing....I miss you......