Specifically, the slim majority reaffirmed a 1991 Supreme Court ruling, McNeil vs. Wisconsin, that said a defendant's statements about crimes for which he has not been charged statements made without a lawyer present are admissible as evidence in court. That applies, the Supreme Court said in 1991, even though the defendant has invoked the right to counsel for those separate crimes that have been formally charged.
The Sixth Amendment's guarantee of "due process under law" has been interpreted by the courts to include a right to a lawyer, among other things.
Monday's ruling came in the case of a Texas burglar who later admitted to killing a woman and her baby. The facts in the case are not easy to read.
In December 1993, Lindsey Owings told the Walker County (Texas) Sheriff's Department that his home had been burglarized and his wife, Margaret, and their 16-month-old daughter, Kori Rae, were missing.
After an anonymous tip, sheriff's deputies questioned Levi Cobb, who lived across the road from the Owings family. Cobb denied any involvement, but while being detained in July 1994 on an unrelated arrest, he was again questioned about the Owings burglary.
Cobb broke during this second questioning and gave a written statement confessing to the burglary but denied any knowledge of the disappearance of Mrs. Owings and her baby.
Cobb was subsequently indicted for the Owings burglary and assigned a lawyer, Hal Ridley. Investigators asked and received permission from Ridley to question Cobb about the disappearances, but again, and yet again in further questioning in 1995, Cobb denied any knowledge.
However, while Cobb was free on bond and living with his father in Odessa, Texas, he confessed to his father that he had killed Mrs. Owings. Cobb's father then gave a statement to the Odessa police, telling them what his son had told him. The Odessa police obtained a warrant by fax from Walker County, arrested Cobb and read him his Miranda rights, including his right to be questioned with a lawyer present.
Cobb waived those rights and told police he had stabbed Mrs. Owings when she surprised him trying to steal her stereo, then buried the dead woman and her still-living baby together a few hundred yards from their house.
At trial, Cobb was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. Cobb appealed, saying that once a lawyer became involved in the case he should have had access to counsel at every stage. He asked the murder confession to be suppressed.
A Texas appeals court reversed the conviction and sentence, sending the case back down for retrial. The appeals court said once the right to counsel "attaches" itself to a charged offense, it also attaches itself to any crime not charged but factually related.
Texas officials then asked the Supreme Court for review. After hearing argument last January, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court Monday.
Writing for the slim conservative majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited the 1991 Supreme Court ruling: "We hold that our decision in McNeil vs. Wisconsin … meant what it said, and that the Sixth Amendment right is 'offense specific.' " It doesn't extend to offenses that have not been charged, even if they are closely related to the crime that is charged, he said.
Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, and was joined by the court's three other liberals. Breyer acknowledged that the right to counsel had important limits, and also cited the McNeil ruling.
But in Cobb's case, the murders and the burglary were intertwined, he said. "The relatedness of the crimes is well illustrated by the impossibility of questioning Cobb about the murders without eliciting admissions about the burglary," Breyer said. "… Nor, in my view, did Cobb waive his right to counsel …. The police officers ought to have spoken to Cobb's counsel before questioning Cobb."
Monday's decision reverses the appeals court, which means Cobb's conviction and death sentence stand.
(No. 99-1702, Texas vs. Cobb)
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