The Daily Digest, 5/26/11

The case today presents an interesting application of the developing brain theory in juveniles. The defendant, who was convicted of two counts of second degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, sought to suppress his statements to police that were made after he was read his Miranda warnings. The defendant argued, inter alia, that his developing brain as a juvenile made him unable to think abstractly and thereby understand abstract concepts like Miranda rights. The trial court credited the testimony of an officer there when the Defendant’s Miranda warnings were read, over an expert psychologist who opined about the Defendant’s developing brain and the ability of juveniles to understand abstract concepts.

Juveniles, Miranda rights, Developing Brain
State v. Jacobs, 2011 WL 2020747 (5th Cir. 2011)
This matter is on remand from the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions and sentences. After his first trial in 1998, defendant, Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. On direct appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed defendant’s conviction and sentence and remanded the matter for a new trial. In the interim, Roper v. Simmons was decided. In response, the DA amended its indictment to reduce the charges against the defendant to two counts of second-degree murder, instead of one count of first-degree murder. Defendant was re-arraigned on the amended indictment and pled not guilty. After a five-day trial, defendant was found guilty as charged by a unanimous twelve-person jury. The trial court denied defendant’s motions for new trial and post verdict judgment of acquittal, and sentenced defendant to two consecutive life sentences at hard labor without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. Defendant filed a motion to reconsider sentence, which was later denied. In his timely filed appeal, the defendant challenged his convictions and sentences. Among his assignments of error, the defendant also argued that the trial court ruled improperly at the suppression hearing regarding his statements to the police when questioned. At the suppression hearing, the defense called a licensed psychologist as an expert in forensic psychology and forensic neuropsychology. He testified that the adolescent brain is different from the adult brain and that the adolescent engages in very concrete thinking rather than abstract thinking. He opined that Miranda rights are abstract so a person must have the ability to think abstractly to understand those rights. The expert stated that he tested the defendant in 1998. Among other things, he assessed his cognitive and neuropsychological functioning. His IQ was 83, which is within the range for mental retardation. The expert also testified that defendant suffers with a type of brain dysfunction that made his ability to understand his rights more difficult so the expert opined that it was highly unlikely that the Defendant understood his rights. Nevertheless, the expert was not present that night so he could not definitively testify that defendant did not understand his rights. In reviewing a trial court’s ruling as to the admissibility of a confession, the court’s conclusions on the credibility of witnesses are entitled to the respect due those made by one who saw the witnesses and heard them testify. A trial court’s ruling will not be overturned on appeal unless it is unsupported by the evidence. In this case, a police lieutenant testified that defendant was advised of his Miranda rights, did not at any time ask for an attorney, nor indicate that he did not want to talk to the officers. The credibility of witnesses at a suppression hearing is within the sound discretion of the trier of fact, who may accept or reject, in whole or in part, the testimony of any witness. Based on the evidence, if the Court were to reach the merits, the Court would find no abuse of the trial court’s discretion in finding the lieutenant’s testimony more credible in this respect. The Court rejected this assignment of error, as well as the Defendant’s other assignments of error, and affirmed the convictions and sentence.

About Nita A. Farahany

Professor of Law and Philosophy, Professor of Genome Sciences and Policy
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