The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld a decision by the state Court of Appeals and ruled against an Effingham County man who argued his confession in a child molestation case was inadmissible.
Justices ruled last week that the confession of Harrison R. Brown was allowable after Brown’s attorneys contended that the jury should not hear about his confession to molesting a 4-year-old boy to Effingham County Sheriff’s deputies.
At issue in this case is whether the officers’ promise that the young man could go home after questioning amounted to an improper "hope of benefit" that would render his confession inadmissible at trial.
"We hold that the answer is no, as long as the officers’ statements do not amount to a promise that the suspect will never be charged or will face reduced charges or a reduced sentence based on what he tells the officers during the interview," Justice David Nahmias wrote in the justices’ opinion. In this case, the young man "could not reasonably have construed the officers’ statements as such a promise."
Deputies asked Brown to come in for an interview in April 2009 after the child’s grandmother reported the child told her Brown had molested him.
Sgt. Don White and Detective John Bradley conducted the interview, which was videotaped. The investigators told Brown he could leave any time he wanted. Brown, a high school graduate, expressed his general familiarity with criminal procedure, informing the officers that he had taken criminal justice classes in school.
At some point, Brown asked, "if I did this, what all would be done?" White replied he did not know because he was not a judge. White then said, "What I can tell you is that when you leave here, no matter what you tell me or say, you’re going home."
The officer continued, "If you tell me what happened, I’m not going to snatch you up, place you in handcuffs and drag you back there in the back….You’re going to go home tonight."
Brown initially denied he’d done what the child alleged. However, eventually Brown admitted he had molested the child and upon that admission, the investigators stopped the interview. They told Brown he would no longer be able to leave and read him his Miranda rights.
After waiving his rights, Brown continued trying to discuss the incident, repeating his earlier admission, and later making further incriminating statements to another investigator.
Brown was indicted for aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, child molestation and felony sexual battery. Prior to trial, Brown’s attorney filed a motion to exclude his statements, arguing that due to the investigators’ promises, Brown’s confession was involuntary and therefore inadmissible.
The trial court granted Brown’s motion, ruling that "Det. Bradley’s and Sgt. White’s repeated statement to defendant that he would be going home no matter what he told them negated the prior statement by Sgt. White that he could not tell defendant what the judge would do." The officers’ statements, the trial court ruled, amounted to an "implied promise" that Brown would face no criminal charges even if he admitted to the child’s allegations.
The state appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, finding that "hope of benefit" generally refers to a lighter sentence and the officers did not suggest Brown would never be arrested or charged.
The high court agreed, stating that "this Court consistently and for many decades has interpreted the phrase ‘slightest hope of benefit’…to focus on promises related to reduced criminal punishment — a shorter sentence, lesser charges, or no charges at all."
"(T)he officers never said or implied to Appellant that if he confessed what he had done to the child, no criminal charges would ever be filed against him, nor did they promise him reduced punishment," the opinion said. "To the contrary, there were several references to potential criminal sanctions, and Appellant acknowledged that there should be criminal consequences if he had in fact molested the child."
The officers’ statements to Brown "clearly referred to what would supposedly happen to him after the interview that day, not what might happen to Appellant later on; they therefore offered at most a collateral benefit."
Brown’s attorneys G. Terry Jackson and Steven Sparger had argued that the deputies "knew to say the magic words that they could not make any promises, they did exactly that by telling Mr. Brown they would not be arresting him, but rather letting him go home, when, in fact, they would be charging him with crimes for which he would face a minimum sentence of 25 years without parole."
The language the investigators used "clearly demonstrated that they were offering Mr. Brown the hope of benefit by confessing to them," Brown’s attorneys wrote in their brief to the state Supreme Court. Brown’s defense team also argued that not only must Brown’s confession be suppressed when his case goes to trial, but "Mr. Brown’s incriminating statements after the Miranda warnings were the direct fruit of his earlier involuntary statements and thus should be excluded and suppressed."