SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Tuesday unanimously overturned a Norwalk man's first-degree murder convictions for killing his estranged wife and an off-duty Los Angeles sheriff's deputy, ruling that detectives failed to properly advise him of his legal rights before he confessed.
Reuben Kenneth Lujan was sentenced to life without parole for killing his estranged wife, Monica, 26, and her friend, Deputy Gilbert Madrigal, 45, by smashing their heads with a concrete block. Lujan had previously been arrested for stalking and threatening Monica, who had left him four months before the 1998 killings. Madrigal was her neighbor, and Lujan suspected that she was dating him.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower court decision, agreed that detectives failed to administer a complete Miranda warning before questioning Lujan. Specifically, they did not tell Lujan that he had a right to an attorney before and during the interrogation and did not end the questioning once he asked for a lawyer, the court said.
Lujan also confessed to the killings during his trial, but that confession cannot be used against him because he only testified to explain his earlier admissions, the 9th Circuit said.
"The problem here is that the words used by law enforcement did not reasonably convey to [Lujan] that he had the right to speak with an attorney present at all times — before and during his custodial interrogations," wrote Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo, a Southern California district judge assigned to the panel. "Speaking with an attorney present was not an option" detectives gave Lujan.
A spokesman for Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, whose office unsuccessfully sought to maintain the convictions, declined to say whether an appeal was likely. If Tuesday's ruling stands, Lujan would either have to be retried or a Superior Court judge might be asked to modify the conviction and sentence to a lesser crime, such as second-degree murder.
Lujan was arrested on the morning of the fatal assault and questioned in three separate sessions by detectives at the Norwalk sheriff's station. During the first interview, a detective told Lujan that he had the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer appointed free of charge. During a third interview, in which Lujan confessed, he asked for a lawyer.
"You feel you need one?" a detective asked.
"Yes, I do," Lujan said.
"OK," the detective replied. "All right. If that's what you want to do, we'll do that."
"Can I get one in here today?" Lujan asked.
"I really doubt it," the detective said. "I mean, I'm going to be honest with you. It's Sunday evening. When you go to court in a couple of days there will be one appointed for you. That's the way the system is set up …
"If you want to call and hire an attorney, that's fine. If you want to make a statement without an attorney, that's up to you. I doubt that if you hire an attorney they'll let you make a statement; they usually don't. That's the way it goes. So, that's your prerogative; that's your choice. Now, if you do want to talk to me without an attorney, that's your choice. You can just tell the jailer, 'Hey, I'd like to talk to the detectives without an attorney present.' OK? That's your choice."
Unbeknownst to Lujan, an attorney was at the station trying to speak to him at the time, said Tracy J. Dressner, his appellate lawyer. She said there was no forensic evidence or eyewitness tying him to the killings. The weapon, a concrete block, was a lid to a water main near the crime scene.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge refused to suppress the confession. A state appeals court said the confession to the detectives should not have been admitted, but upheld the conviction on the grounds that Lujan confirmed his guilt when he testified at the trial. The 9th Circuit said that ruling conflicted with settled law.
Testimony induced by an erroneous admission of an out-of-court confession cannot be used in a subsequent prosecution or to support the initial conviction, wrote Bencivengo, an Obama appointee, who was joined by 9th Circuit Judges A. Wallace Tashima, a Jimmy Carter appointee, and Jay S. Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee.