In a unanimous Opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court today ordered a new trial for a Gibson County man after determining that statements he made during a police interrogation should not have been used as evidence at trial because the prosecution failed to prove that the defendant understood and waived his constitutional right to appointed counsel.
The case involves the 2007 death and dismemberment of Doris Deberry, mother of the defendant, David H. Climer, Jr. During police questioning, a detective informed Climer of his Miranda rights, telling him he had a right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning. The detective asked Climer to sign a form acknowledging he understood those rights, but Climer declined. When Climer asked whether he could “have … an appointed lawyer right now,” the detective answered, “Well, not at this time.”
The detective then questioned Climer for three hours before Climer began to talk about the circumstances of Deberry’s death. Climer denied killing his mother, but admitted to dismembering her corpse and burying her remains in a wooded area in Madison County. The day after questioning, Climer led the police to the burial site.
Climer was indicted for first degree premeditated murder and abuse of a corpse. Before trial, Climer asked the judge to exclude from the proceedings his statements to the police because they were obtained in violation of his constitutional right to counsel. The trial judge denied the motion because Climer had not clearly invoked his right to counsel.
A jury convicted Climer of the charged offenses, but, on appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals found the evidence insufficient to support the jury’s finding of premeditation, and modified the murder conviction to second degree. The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the defendant’s statements were properly admitted into evidence because he never unequivocally invoked his right to counsel.
The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and Court of Criminal Appeals that the defendant never clearly invoked his right to counsel, but ruled that Climer’s statements should not have been admitted into evidence because the prosecution failed to show that Climer understood and waived his right to appointed counsel. The Court granted Climer a new trial because the State failed to prove that the erroneous admission of Climer’s statements did not contribute to the guilty verdict.
The Court explained that the physical evidence discovered as a result of Climer’s statements was properly admitted into evidence because Climer’s statements were not coerced. As a result, the physical evidence may be admitted against Climer at the new trial.