Mass. Crim. Dig.: Commonwealth v. Thomas

Commonwealth v. Thomas, 469 Mass. 531 (2014)

I. Facts

In the early morning of July 6, 2006, a three-story Brockton house erupted in flames. The first-floor occupants were unharmed; however, second-floor residents and guests threw the children out the window to a passerby and then jumped themselves. Those on the third floor could not escape on their own. While firefighters saved three people, including the one-month-old baby, the baby’s mother was trapped in the bathroom and later died of smoke inhalation at the hospital.

Michelle Johnson rented the first-floor apartment. The defendant, Chiteara M. Thomas, and her boyfriend, Cornelius Brown, stayed in the first-floor apartment with Johnson. Prior to the fire, Johnson demanded that Thomas move out. The defendant, angry at being tossed out, repeatedly threatened “to kill Johnson and burn the house down.”

Thomas repeatedly went back to the house. On June 27, 2006, police officers removed her from the premises after seeing her on the porch with a knife. Police were called again on July 3; a neighbor witnessed an argument during which the defendant broke one of the house windows and screamed “I’ll be back to torch the place,” and “If I’m not going to have a home, you’re not going to have one.” After this incident, police told the defendant again not to return, but she was arrested that night for trespassing.

Thomas was due in court on July 5 for the trespassing arraignment. She did not appear, resulting in a warrant for her arrest. Thomas did, however, visit Veronica Copeland’s to smoke crack cocaine, drink alcohol, and take Klonopin. She first attempted to return to Johnson’s house by taking Copeland’s car without permission. After Copeland stopped her, Thomas called Johnson and accused her of having a sexual relationship with Brown and threatened her.

A few hours later, Thomas took Copeland’s bicycle and road to Johnson’s residence. The same neighbor saw the defendant approach the house, reach into the second window on the first-floor of the left side of the house, and run away. The neighbor then saw a reddish-orange glow to the first-floor windows.

The police quickly learned that Thomas had a feud with Johnson. Detective Schaaf, who had previously arrested Thomas on seven outstanding warrants, located her in the courthouse lobby just before 1:00 p.m. on July 6. During the following interview, State Trooper John Silva and Brockton police detective Dominic Persampieri read Thomas her Miranda rights and presented her a printed copy. After some confusion she decided “I’d rather have a lawyer,” and “I want to talk, but I don’t wanna talk unless I got somebody present,” and when directly asked if she wanted an attorney, she answered “yes.”

After invoking her right to counsel, Detective Persampieri said: “Understand one thing. Once you leave here, we’re gonna do our investigation, and it’s gonna get a lot hotter. What we’re trying to tell you, we’re gonna give you the opportunity to tell us your side of the story. Okay?” The detective cut Thomas off when she began to speak, stating: “Sorry. You already lawyered up.” Thomas, after more back-and-forth, ultimately agreed to speak to detectives.

Thomas denied setting the fire, but made incriminating statements about her whereabouts and her hatred towards Johnson. The interview lasted until almost 5:00 p.m., therefore Thomas was kept overnight because the court had closed. The next morning she was released on personal recognizance. However, after police learned of Olinda Calderon’s death and found an eyewitness, Thomas was brought back in for a second interview.

Thomas was again given Miranda warnings and again agreed to speak to police. She continued to deny setting the fire. The interrogation lasted approximately twenty-five minutes and ended with her arrest. Trooper McGrath, who was not involved in any interrogation, was present for booking. Thomas turned to the trooper and said “I’m not a bad person.” McGrath said he believed her and asked if she wanted to speak to the investigators again. Thomas indicated that she did, and was brought back to interrogation and given her Miranda rights. She waived her rights again and explained that she used the lighter to set fire to a curtain on the left side of the house.

II. Procedural History

Thomas was tried in Superior Court for murder in the first degree on the theory of deliberate premeditation, arson of a dwelling house, and thirteen counts of attempted murder. Arguing that her federal and state constitutional right against self-incrimination and right to counsel were violated, the defendant moved to suppress the statements made during the July 6 and 7 interviews. The motion was denied and the full recorded interviews were admitted into evidence. The defendant appealed her conviction arguing that the judge erred in denying the suppression requests.

III. Question Presented

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) considered whether the admission of the July 6 and 7 interviews violated Thomas’ rights to counsel and against self-incrimination. Underlying these constitutional questions were more focused issues such as whether Thomas invoked her right to counsel, whether this was scrupulously honored by police, whether the interviews were “continuous,” whether new case law should be applied retroactively, whether previous violations tainted subsequent statements, whether the defendant re-initiated the interview, and whether the defendant was harmed by any error.

IV. Reasoning and Analysis

The SJC began with the July 6 interview. Upon reviewing the statements, the SJC found that “[t]he defendant clearly and unequivocally invoked her right to counsel at the beginning of the interview, when she declared that she did not want to answer questions without an attorney present.” The motion judge, relying on the defendant’s statements that she had not been arrested and “didn’t come here in cuffs,” found that Thomas was not in custody when she invoked her right to counsel thereby negating the requirements of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 479 (1966), and Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 481 (1981). In disagreement, the SJC believed that a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave. The court cited the defendant’s knowledge of her outstanding warrant and her response to whether she came there voluntarily, when she stated: “No, Schaaf came to get me.”

The motion judge also found that if the defendant was in custody, she initiated the conversation subsequent to invoking her right to counsel. While Miranda requires that defendants be read their rights, Edwards addressed the admissibility of statements made after invoking a Miranda right—the right to counsel. Edwards requires that when counsel is requested, the interrogation must cease immediately. Furthermore, police must scrupulously honor the invocation of counsel. The SJC found that the subsequent statements resulted from Detective Persampieri’s attempt to persuade the defendant to waive her rights. The detective’s conduct did not scrupulously honor her invocation of the right to counsel; therefore, Thomas’s statements should have been suppressed.

The SJC next considered the pre-booking July 7 interview. The motion judge found that Thomas “made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of her Miranda rights.” The motion judge also found that any potential violation during the July 6 interview did not taint the July 7 interview. The judge concluded that Edwards applied only to continuous custody from the time of invocation to the time statements are given. However, during Thomas’s trial, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98 (2010), that Edwards applies for fourteen days after release from custody. The SJC applied Shatzer retroactively and ruled that the pre-booking statements should have been excluded.

Lastly the SJC considered the post-booking July 7 statements. Having ruled above that Edwards applied to Thomas’ case, the post-booking statements must also be excluded unless the defendant reinitiated the communication. Upon comparing state and federal standards, the SJC found them quite similar: statements that can reasonably be seen as tangentially related to the interrogation and manifesting a desire to open a more generalized discussion will be considered initiating communication with investigators. Similar to statements such as “Well, what is going to happen to me now?,” and “What’s going to happen to me next?,” Thomas was found to have initiated conversation upon stating “I’m not a bad person.” Thomas completed the two-part test by knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waiving her rights after reinitiating communication.

Having found Thomas reinitiated communication and subsequently waived her rights, the SJC considered whether, despite satisfying the two-part test, the statements are tainted by the prior Edwards violations. Statements acquired in violation of Edwards or Miranda create the presumption of taint. This presumption recognizes that subsequent statements can be the result of the initial coercion if the suspect believes that invoking her rights would be useless because her previous statement already incriminated her or if the interrogation was continuous.

The presumption of taint, therefore, can be overcome by showing that the subsequent statements were either not the result of a continuous interrogation or that the previous statements were not incriminating. The initial interrogation, ruled an Edwards violation, tainted the pre-booking interrogation because of Shatzer’s fourteen day rule. Therefore, the time between the earlier statements and the subsequent statements is merely twenty minutes, which the SJC found inadequate to overcome the presumption of taint. However, during both the July 6 and pre-booking July 7 interviews, the defendant repeatedly denied any involvement in the fire. Therefore, the presumption of taint is overcome because her previous statements were not incriminating. The SJC ruled the post-booking interview statements were not tainted and therefore were admissible.

After determining that only the post-booking statements were admissible, the SJC considered whether the erroneous admission of prior statements was harmless. Upon convicting Thomas, the jury had to find that the defendant intentionally set the fire, that setting the fire caused Calderon’s death, and that the defendant intended the fire to kill Johnson. The SJC found that the verdict was not affected by the admission of improper evidence regarding the first two issues because her admission to setting the fire in the same manner described by the neighbor, who identified the defendant, provided ample evidentiary support for those two conclusions.

However, the SJC ruled that the two inadmissible interrogations were necessary to prove deliberate premeditation because they established her existing feud with Johnson, her hatred of Johnson, her jealousy regarding Brown staying with Johnson, and their alleged sexual infidelity. Reasoning that the statements were required to support otherwise inconclusive evidence regarding her intent to kill Johnson, the SJC found that the admission was necessary for the guilty verdict on the charge of murder based on deliberate premeditation.

V. Conclusion

For the above reasons, the convictions of murder in the first degree and of attempted murder were vacated and remanded for new trial, but the verdict for arson of a dwelling house was affirmed. Although the murder and attempted murder counts were remanded for new trial, the Commonwealth could accept a guilty verdict on a reduced felony murder charge. The judge reasoned that the jury found the felony murder elements had been proven and that they did not need the erroneously admitted statements to do so.

Contributing Editor: Eric Gillespie

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