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Morris v. United States

May 06, 1999


Before Terry and Schwelb, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Associate Judge Schwelb.

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the Atlantic and Maryland Reporters. Users are requested to notify the Clerk of the Court of any formal errors so that corrections may be made before the bound volumes go to press.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Reggie B. Walton, Trial Judge)

Argued February 12, 1999

Opinion by Associate Judge Terry, Concurring in part and Dissenting in part, at p. _.

Schwelb, Associate Judge: Aaron L. Morris was convicted by a jury of involuntary manslaughter *fn1 in connection with the death, on or about February 3, 1995, of three-year-old Rhonda Morris. On appeal, Morris contends that the trial Judge committed reversible error by denying Morris' motion to suppress

1. an inculpatory statement made by Morris prior to being advised of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); and

2. a videotaped confession which Morris made after he had invoked his right to counsel.

Morris further claims that his trial testimony, which was also inculpatory, was induced by the allegedly erroneous admission of his videotaped confession and of the statement that preceded it.

The trial Judge gave full and thoughtful consideration to the issues raised in Morris' motion to suppress. The Judge found that Morris was not in custody at the time he made his initial inculpatory statement, and that no Miranda warning was required. The Judge further found that after declining to answer questions without an attorney, Morris voluntarily re-initiated Discussions with the police and intentionally waived his right to counsel. We conclude that these findings are supported by the evidence, and we discern no error of law. Accordingly, we affirm Morris' manslaughter conviction. *fn2



A. The initial investigation.

The evidence at the hearing on Morris' motion to suppress statements revealed that on the night that Rhonda Morris died, her mother *fn3 had left Rhonda, as well as the mother's three other small children, in Aaron Morris' care while she went in and out of her apartment with various men. At about 7:45 a.m. on February 4, 1995, the police received a report of an unconscious child. Officers proceeded to Rhonda's mother's apartment, which was in unsanitary condition, *fn4 and found paramedics "working on" Rhonda. The little girl was not breathing, and she had no pulse. Rhonda's mother was screaming that "he killed my baby."

The officers discovered Morris with the mother's three other children. Morris told them that he had heard Rhonda crying in the bedroom, and that on checking on her, he had found that she was choking. After he was unable to revive the child, he asked a neighbor to call 911. Morris denied that he had killed Rhonda and professed not to know why the mother was claiming that he had. The officers also questioned Morris about whether any of the mother's male associates had contact with Rhonda.

As the investigation proceeded, additional officers arrived and questioned Morris further. Morris told them that he sometimes disciplined the children with a belt, but denied that he had spanked Rhonda that night. The officers took custody of Morris' belt.

While the police were questioning Morris, they learned from Sergeant Evelyn Randall of the Homicide Division that Rhonda had died and that the case was being treated as a homicide. Detective Randall requested the officers to bring any witnesses to police headquarters. Detective Jeffrey Owens then asked Morris "if he would mind coming down to the police station to give a formal statement." Morris replied, "Sure." Indeed, according to Owens, Morris appeared to have "no problem" with Owens' request.

At about 10 a.m. on February 4, Detective Owens drove Morris to police headquarters. Morris was not handcuffed or otherwise restrained, and he rode in the passenger seat of Owens' vehicle. Upon arrival at their destination, Detective Owens placed Morris, still unrestrained, in an unlocked interview room. According to Owens, Morris was not then under arrest.

B. Morris' first inculpatory statement.

At approximately noon, Sergeant Randall came in to the interview room and introduced herself. Sergeant Randall told Morris that Rhonda had died, that the little girl had suffered "trauma to the stomach," and that she appeared to have been burned and sexually molested. *fn5 Sergeant Randall asked Morris what he knew about the injuries that Rhonda had suffered. Morris initially repeated the account that he had given at Rhonda's mother's apartment, namely, that Rhonda had been choking, that he had tried to help her, and that he had requested a neighbor to call 911.

While the interview was proceeding, Detective Willie Jefferson of the Homicide Division entered the room and joined in the questioning. Jefferson repeatedly contradicted various statements made by Morris, *fn6 and he confronted him in an accusatory manner. *fn7 Ultimately, Morris admitted that Rhonda had been crying and that he had punched her in the stomach.

As soon as Morris made this admission, Sergeant Randall stopped the interview and advised Morris of his Miranda rights. Morris stated that he understood his rights and that he did not want to answer any questions without a lawyer. At 2:35 p.m., Morris so indicated on a PD-47 "advice of rights" card. Sergeant Randall and Detective Jefferson then left the room.

C. The videotaped confession.

After the interrogation of Morris had been discontinued following his refusal to answer questions without an attorney, Detective Daniel Whalen went into the interview room to obtain non-substantive processing information from Morris. Whalen testified that Morris then asked Whalen if he (Morris) could speak to Sergeant Randall.

Sergeant Randall returned to the interview room, and Morris indicated that he wanted to talk to her. Sergeant Randall responded that she could not discuss his case, and Morris asked her why. In response to Morris' inquiry, Sergeant Randall explained that Morris had "indicated he didn't want to answer any further questions without a lawyer" and that "I had to abide by that." Morris said "OK." Sergeant Randall then called in Detective Jefferson, explaining to Jefferson that Morris "wanted to tell us about his life." *fn8

Morris began to talk about his family background, *fn9 and he mentioned that he had lived somewhat unhappily with his grandfather in North Carolina. Detective Jefferson, suspecting that the grandfather may have molested Morris, suddenly asked Morris if his penis was dripping, and accused him of having gonorrhea and passing on the disease to Rhonda. Morris denied the allegation. Jefferson also asked Morris if Morris had ever been in prison, and he observed that Morris was "light in the pants."

Morris continued to discuss his family situation and, in particular, his relationship with Rhonda and with her siblings. Remarking that Rhonda was a nice little girl, Morris stated that "I might as well tell you what happened to Rhonda." *fn10 Sergeant Randall explained that if that was what Morris wanted to do, he would first have to complete another advice-of-rights card and agree to answer questions without a lawyer. Morris agreed to do so.

In the videotaped interview that followed, *fn11 Detective Jefferson re-advised Morris of his Miranda rights, and Morris signed a new Form PD-47 waiving those rights. Morris then stated that Rhonda had "used the bathroom on herself," and that he had "put her in the tub with the hot water and it pulled the skin off her feet." Morris acknowledged that he had grabbed and squeezed the little girl's neck as he pulled her out of the tub and that he had punched her in the stomach. Morris denied having sexually molested Rhonda, and he explained that he had been "stressed out" and that he was sorry for what he had done.

D. Proceedings in the trial court.

Following his confession, Morris was indicted on charges of first degree murder, indecent liberties with a minor child, and cruelty to a minor child. The defense filed a pretrial motion to suppress statements which, as we have noted, the trial Judge denied.

The government dismissed the indecent liberties charge before trial. At the trial, after the prosecution proved the facts described above, Morris testified in his own defense. Morris reiterated that he had punched Rhonda, *fn12 but emphasized that he had attempted to resuscitate her, that he had not wanted her to die, and that he was sorry for what he had done.

The jurors apparently credited Morris' testimony regarding his intent, for Morris was acquitted of the murder charge. He was, however, convicted of the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter and of cruelty to a minor child. This appeal followed.



A. The standard of review.

Morris contended in his pretrial motion to suppress, and continues to maintain in this court, that the police unlawfully elicited his first inculpatory statement -- namely, that he had punched Rhonda -- through custodial interrogation conducted by the officers before Morris was advised of his rights pursuant to Miranda. Morris also claims that his videotaped confession was improperly obtained by the police by questioning him after he had invoked his right to counsel, and that the Judge's refusal to suppress that confession was contrary to the ...

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