The U.S. legal system is built on the premise that ends don't justify means. Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear prosecutors argue, in essence, that getting a jury to convict a woman of murder justified the shameful means police used to extract her confession. On Feb. 12, 1997, Patrice Seibert discovered that her son Jonathan had died in his sleep. The 12-year-old had cerebral palsy and could not walk, speak or feed himself.
Seibert apparently feared she might be accused of neglect in Jonathan's death. That, according to the police's theory, is why Seibert admitted she listened and did not object as an older son and his friend, Donald Rector, discussed setting her house trailer on fire to cover up the death. The fire they set that night also killed Rector.
Five days later, Mississippi police arrested Seibert for Rector's murder. The officers decided in advance not to give her Miranda warnings -- not to tell her she had the right to remain silent or to have an attorney present during questioning. They pressured Seibert into admitting that Rector was supposed to die in the fire, a statement she later disavowed. After she confessed, they read Seibert her rights, then, according to police testimony, officers pressed her to repeat the confession on tape for use at her trial. Seibert was later convicted of second-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.
At trial, the lead police officer said his decision not to warn Seibert until after she talked was a technique he learned at a national police training institute.
Prosecutors and police naturally push for more power to snag criminals and lock them up. No one wants murderers to go free, but the rules of the justice system are designed to ensure that police and prosecutors use their enormous power fairly. With its 1966 Miranda vs. Arizona decision, the Supreme Court insisted that police warn suspects prior to questioning. The court recognized that suspects facing officers alone in an interrogation room are at the mercy of the state's often unchecked power. Deprived of sleep or food, even beaten, as many have been, suspects can be easily intimidated into copping to crimes they didn't commit. By forcing police to remind suspects that they can keep quiet and by allowing them a lawyer at their side, Miranda evens the scales a bit.
Yet pressured by police and prosecutors, the current Supreme Court has sent disturbingly mixed signals in recent years on Miranda. Seibert's case is one of three this term that should prompt the court to forcefully reaffirm that precedent.
The California Supreme Court did exactly that last spring in a case where, as in Seibert, police deliberately held off warning the suspect to bully him into confessing. The state's justices unanimously slammed this unconstitutional practice as "unconscionable." The U.S. Supreme Court should follow suit.