From a criminal defense standpoint, murder suspects in Pennsylvania should ALWAYS exercise their right to remain silent. After all, police officers and detectives in murder cases are specially trained to interrogate suspects and get confessions, whether they are true or false.
Police interrogation tactics are almost always psychological, mental and emotional. It’s not uncommon for a detective who is interrogating a murder suspect to bring up the suspect’s family or parents, or a detective may discuss principles of respect and responsibility. Interrogators often try to appear like they are trying to help or protect the suspect, when the truth is that anything the suspect admits to will be used against them later.
In addition, interrogations in major cases, like murders or homicides, are geared to drag on. A suspect may spend hours being interrogated. So naturally, suspects get mentally and emotionally fatigued as time goes on. For the average person, such interrogations are overwhelming and frightening. For suspects with intellectual or mental disabilities, these interrogations are downright terrifying.
Pennsylvania Murder Suspects Should Remain Silent During Interrogations
Before a custodial interrogation begins, law enforcement is legally required to inform the suspect that they have constitutional rights to remain silent and to an attorney. Again, it’s crucial for a suspect to invoke their constitutional rights, for two main reasons.
First, there’s the risk of a false confession or the risk of confessing to other, unrelated crimes. It’s not uncommon for a murder suspect to confess to having committed other crimes in order to get out of the hot seat. For example, a Philadelphia resident is brought in for questioning in a major homicide case. Rather than invoke their right to remain silent, the individual speaks to detectives. He denies the murder, but after hours of questioning, he volunteers that he committed a robbery and where he’s hidden the gun used in the robbery. Assuming he’s innocent of murder, he will probably face robbery charges.
Second, there’s the risk that critical evidence will be found and seized as a result of admissions made during a confession. For example, a murder suspect is questioned about a shooting death. Rather than remain silent, she agrees to talk to detectives. Eventually, she admits to the crime and even tells officers where she hid the gun used in the shooting. Officers retrieve the gun, find her fingerprints on it, and match it to the bullets retrieved from the victim. All this evidence will be used against her to either get her to plead guilty or get a jury or judge to find her guilty after a trial.
The reality is that nothing a suspect admits to during an interrogation in a murder case is going to help their own case. Rather, it’s the opposite. Any criminal admissions made during an investigation will only help law enforcement conduct their investigation and ultimately get a conviction.
An Affirmative Statement is Required – Silence is NOT Enough
In order to invoke the right to remain silent, a suspect has to say something affirmative. And it’s got to be clear or unequivocal. Simply not talking or remaining silent isn’t enough. Rather, a suspect must say something that a reasonable person would understand to mean that they don’t want to speak to detectives. Saying “I don’t know if I should talk to you.” isn’t enough. On the other hand, saying “I am through talking to you.” or “I want a lawyer before I talk to you.” would be enough.
In a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Commonwealth v. Lukach (Oct. 2018), the court held in favor of the defendant on the issue of whether he had invoked his right to remain silent and as a result, whether the police officer’s subsequent questioning and recovery of evidence uncovered during the questioning were illegal.
During a murder investigation, defendant Lukach was identified as a possible suspect. He was arrested on two unrelated warrants. He was then read his Miranda rights and questioned about the murder by the chief of the local police department. Lukach initially denied involvement in the murder. Approximately 30 minutes later, the chief started discussing Lukach’s mother, at which point, Lukach stated, “Yeah. I don’t know just, I’m done talking. I don’t have nothing to talk about.” The chief continued questioning him and over the course of the next hour, Lukach confessed to the murders and also gave up the location of critical evidence tying him to the murder, the victim’s credit card and personal belongings.
The trial court granted Lukach’s motion to suppress his statement and any evidence obtained as a result of the interrogation. The prosecution appealed and lost. It appealed again to the PA Supreme Court which upheld the lower courts’ rulings.
For more info, visit the Pennsylvania Murder Charge Law Library.
Philadelphia Criminal Law Firm – Murder & Homicide Cases
Our law firm handles murder cases across the Philadelphia area. David S. Nenner has over 30 years of experience handling serious criminal matters and is available for a free consultation. 215.564.0644