May 26, 2009

Montejo Loses to the "Letter of the Law"

Jesse Jay Montejo was charged with first-degree murder in Louisiana. Montejo remained mute at his first court hearing as the judge appointed an attorney to represent him. After the police read Montejo his Miranda rights, but before Montejo could meet with his attorney, Montejo showed the police where he had put the murder weapon and wrote a letter of apology to his victim's widow.  Over the objection of Montejo's lawyer, the trial judge ruled that the prosecutor could offer the letter into evidence at trial to help prove that Montejo committed the murder.

In a decision issued May 26, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the trial court's ruling in a 5-4 majority decision (Montejo v. Louisiana - PDF).

The decision overturned a two-decades-old case that basically said that once a lawyer has been appointed for a defendant, any statements the defendant makes to the police in the absence of the attorney should not be admitted into evidence.  The rule's purpose was to discourage police officers from "badgering" defendants into talking to them. But a statement that a defendant is badgered into making is likely to be inadmissible even under the Montejo decision. In deciding Montejo, the Court majority assumed that Montejo had written the letter voluntarily.  If so, said the majority, there's no valid reason to exclude it from evidence.  But if the police hadn't warned Montejo of his right to remain silent, or if they hectored Montejo into writing the letter, then the letter won't be admissible in evidence.

Probably few suspects who already have lawyers are as cooperative as Montejo and decide to talk voluntarily to police officers. Thus, as the Court majority admits, its decision is unlikely to affect many cases.