The conviction of a Massachusetts murder defendant was recently overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, for a rather interesting reason. That reason centered on a suspect’s constitutional right to counsel while in police custody.
The defendant, Jerome McNulty, was arrested by Salem police on the morning of March 29 2001, for the murder of his girlfriend. The time line of what followed was key to the SJC’s decision to overturn the conviction: Upon McNulty’s arrest, he was read his Miranda Rights. A custodial interrogation was then conducted at approximately 9:12 AM, by a Salem detective and a state police sergeant. The interrogation took a break at approximately 10:00 AM. The defendant had told police when he was arrested that he did not have funds for an attorney, and at approximately 10:27 AM, an attorney was appointed to represent him. That attorney repeatedly called the Salem police station, asking to speak with McNulty, but he was told that the defendant was unavailable. On one occasion when the attorney called the police station back, he was told by a booking officer – the very same booking officer that had booked McNulty – that she could “neither confirm nor deny” the defendant’s presence at the police station. In other phone calls the attorney made to the station in attempting to speak with the defendant, the attorney was told that he’d have to speak with the department’s public information officer, and was transferred only into that officer’s unattended voice mail. In each and all of the attorney’s phone calls to the police station, he repeatedly asked police staff to pass along a specific message to the defendant: Do not say anything to police investigators.
Clearly, the police officers involved were engaged in an orchestrated effort to prevent any messages from the attorney, ultimately getting to the defendant. The defendant ultimately did not receive the attorney’s phone messages until 10:45 AM, and by that time had already signed a statement essentially admitting to the murder. The attorney arrived shortly thereafter, and was prevented from seeing the defendant for an additional 20 minutes while police investigators wrapped up getting the defendant’s signed statements.