In State v. Quinnizel J. Clark (A-67-20/A-37-21/085271) (Decided June 20, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey vacated the murder conviction of Defendant Quinnizel Clark and granted him a new trial after finding that his right to counsel was violated. According to the court, once the defendant invoked his right to counsel, the interrogation should have stopped. The court further found that it was a harmful error to play a video of the questioning for the jury, particularly given that the detective strongly suggested that defendant would give them the information they sought if he were truly innocent.
Facts of State v. Clark
Defendant Quinnizel Clark was convicted of murder of James Dewyer and sentenced to life imprisonment. At trial, the State played for the jury Clark’s videotaped statement to police prior to his arrest.
At one point during the statement, police pressed defendant about his alibi and confronted him with their theory that defendant killed Dewyer. In response, defendant told officers, “charge me, call my attorney Mr. Keisler over here, charge me and let’s go.” Even though defendant twice advised officers to call his attorney, the interrogation continued. The officers continued to urge defendant to tell them who he had been with during the time of the murder and to suggest that he did not want to tell them because he was lying, and therefore guilty.
Defendant asked officers to call his attorney a third time, and the interrogation ended. When the statement was played for the jury at trial, the jury heard defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel as well as the officer’s continued questioning and their insinuations of his guilt. During summation, the State argued that the detective “practically begged” defendant to provide information regarding his alibi, but defendant refused, which again suggested his guilt.
On appeal, in a split decision, the Appellate Division vacated defendant’s conviction and remanded the matter for further proceedings based on cumulative error. The majority noted, but took no issue with, the fact that the jury heard defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel during the statement he gave to the police.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Clark
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously found that the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated. Accordingly, it vacated his conviction and remanded for a new trial.
“Once defendant invoked his right to counsel, the interrogation should have stopped. Not only did the interrogation continue, but during the questioning, the detective strongly suggested that defendant would give them the information they sought if he were truly innocent,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote. “Allowing that entire exchange to be played for the jury was harmful error. In addition, the error was compounded when the prosecutor commented on that portion of the statement that should have never been before the jury in the first place.”
In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 474 (1966), if an individual subjected to police interrogation while in custody “states that he wants an attorney, the interrogation must cease until an attorney is present.” Moreover, under the state privilege against self-incrimination, any indication of a desire for counsel, however ambiguous, will trigger the entitlement to counsel.
Here, the court found that when the defendant invoked his right to counsel by stating, “call my attorney Mr. Keisler over here,” all questioning should have stopped. “Defendant, by specifically naming his attorney and telling officers to call him, invoked his right to counsel. However, even if his invocation could be viewed as equivocal or ambiguous, the detectives were not justified in continuing the interrogation under New Jersey law,” Justice Pierre-Louis explained. “There is no question that the interrogation should have ended at that point and that portion of the recording should have been excised from the statement played, not once, but twice for the jury.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to emphasize that in situations in which a suspect has waived his or her Miranda rights and agreed to speak to law enforcement, but later invoked the right to counsel during the interrogation, trial courts should seek to excise any reference to a criminal defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel from the statement that the jury hears. Additionally, when testimony explaining why an interview or interrogation was terminated is necessary, instruction should be provided that explains to the jury that people decline to speak with police for many reasons, emphasizing that a defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel or right to remain silent may not in any way be used to infer guilt.
In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that allowing the jury to hear defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel, the detective’s statements thereafter, and the prosecutor’s comments in summation that Detective Raynor “practically begged” defendant for information on his alibi could have led the jury to a result it otherwise might not have reached. “We find that allowing the jury to hear defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel, the detective’s statements thereafter, and the prosecutor’s comments in summation could have led the jury to a result it otherwise might not have reached. The State concedes that its case against defendant was circumstantial. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder, no murder weapon was ever recovered, and defendant never confessed to killing Dewyer,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote. “It was therefore harmful for the jury to have improperly heard defendant invoke his right to counsel at the moment he was confronted with murdering Dewyer and then hear the prosecutor insinuate defendant’s guilt based on defendant’s refusal to tell the officers who he was with in Roebling.”