Murder for Hire (the premeditated, ruthless kind)

Kelly v. State (Unpublished Memo): In a murder-for-hire case, a partial confession was admissible because it was made in a non-custodial interrogation.  Also, law enforcement’s public statements that the crime was ruthless and premeditated, while certainly the sort that might inflame a potential juror’s passions, were not so pervasive as to require a transfer of venue.

Kelly’s husband was killed as he lay sleeping.  Word was, Kelly had hired some teenagers to do it.  The sheriff’s office asked her to come have a talk.  She came.  She signed a statement that she had overheard some teenagers talking about killing her husband.  But she denied paying them.  She was then read her Miranda warnings and arrested.  The sheriff told the press that Kelly offered to pay to have her husband killed, that the crime was premeditated and ruthlessly carried out, and that Kelly had been trying to have her husband killed for some time.

The Partial Confession: Kelly says the statement is inadmissible — she signed it while in custody but before Miranda warnings were given.  The statement is damning, it amounts to a partial confession.  It puts her in contact with the trigger-youths.  And, regardless of what Kelly says took place during that contact, the actions that followed told the real story to the jury.

Under Dowthitt, the objective test for whether a person is in custody includes the following factors: (1) whether the suspect is physically deprived of her freedom of action in any significant way, (2) whether a law enforcement officer tells the suspect that she cannot leave, (3) whether law enforcement officers create a situation that would lead a reasonable person to believe that her freedom of movement has been significantly restricted, and (4) whether there is probable cause to arrest, that is “manifested” to the suspect, and law enforcement officers do not tell the suspect that she is free to leave.

The statement was given in the Nacogdoches County Sheriff’s office.  Early in the interrogation, Kelly asked to leave, saying she needed to tend to her husband’s funeral arrangements.  The deputy responded that the questions would only take a minute.  So law enforcement didn’t physically restrain her, nor did they flat-out tell her she couldn’t leave.  The issue is whether “this will only take a minute” would make a reasonable person believe that their freedom of movement was restricted. The Tyler court says: “No.”  A reasonable person would still believe they were free to go.

On the fourth prong, the Tyler court held that there was nothing that “manifested” probable cause prior to the Miranda warnings.  It’s hard to tell what that holding really means — the opinion doesn’t say whether the written statement (or the verbal assertion on which it was based) was made before or after the Miranda warnings.

Venue: Basically, the Tyler court says Sheriff Kerss would have been better off without saying what he did.  However, he didn’t repeat it.  His statements were only mentioned a couple of times in what was a deluge of media coverage.  So, Sheriff Kerss didn’t create the sort of  pervasive, prejudicial, and inflammatory coverage that would have deprived Kelly of an impartial jury.

New Trial: Kelly also sought a new trial on the basis of juror misconduct.  She offered affidavits concerning an alleged lunch-break conversation about the case between juror a juror and some of the juror’s friends.  But, in live testimony, one of the affiants couldn’t recall particulars, and the juror in question (and the friends) all denied talking about the case.  The motion for new trial was denied by the trial court, and that decision was affirmed by the Tyler court.

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