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Habeas corpus relief for a gang assassin of a 10-month-old baby?

Is placing two suspects in a room together an interrogation? Can Miranda rights be violated without an interrogation?

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Congress has significantly limited the circumstances in which a state prisoner can be freed through a habeas proceeding.


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BOWEN V. DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, 2024 WL 632026 (11th Cir. 2024)

At the tender age of 16, Jimmie Bowen was the leader of a gang involved in the drug trade. Pierre Roche was selling drugs on turf claimed by Bowen. Gang members had shot Roche a few years earlier, but he recovered and continued selling drugs on the gang’s claimed territory. When Bowen spotted Roche playing dominoes, he masked up and shot Roche at close range. Bowen stood directly over Roche’s fallen body, pumping more bullets into him. Bowen also shot Christopher Smith, another dominoes player. Bowen then shot and killed a 10-month-old baby sitting in his father’s lap across the table.

An associate of Bowen’s told police Bowen was the shooter and that 17-year-old Bernard Jones, also a gang member, was the getaway driver. Bowen and Jones were soon arrested. Bowen invoked his right to counsel and police questioning ended. The detective moved Bowen into a room with Jones and told them they would be taken to a juvenile center; the detective said nothing to either suspect about talking to the other. The room was equipped with microphones and cameras.

Bowen and Jones wondered aloud how the police had “the two right motherf***ers.” He and Jones, Bowen said, were the only living people to “know the truth.” Bowen implicitly acknowledged he was the shooter (and that Jones was the driver) and accurately described the scene of the crime. Bowen’s incriminating statements were used in his trial after the trial judge denied a motion to suppress the statements. The jury found Bowen guilty on all counts.

A writ of habeas corpus, also known as the “Great Writ,” is a Constitutional right that protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment. Translated from Latin, it means, “Show me the body.” It is a process by which a court considers the legitimacy of a prisoner’s custody: “Habeas review, in short, is a uniquely powerful form of federal intrusion into state affairs.”

Congress has significantly limited the circumstances in which a state prisoner can be freed through a habeas proceeding. A federal court may not grant habeas relief to a state prisoner “with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court,” unless the adjudication (1) “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” or (2) “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding” (28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)). A petitioner must show that some decision from the United States Supreme Court would “clearly require the state court” to have adopted a different result (Kernan v. Cuero, 583 U.S. 1 (2017)). Thus, Bowen had to show his Miranda rights were clearly violated under existing precedent of the Supreme Court.

A federal trial judge agreed the detective violated Bowen’s Miranda rights. The state appealed and the appellate court reversed the trial judge’s decision. The now-famous Miranda rule applies when there is both custody and interrogation (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)). In the Miranda decision, the Supreme Court defined “interrogation” as “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” The Court later refined this statement, noting, “The definition of interrogation can extend only to words or actions on the part of police officers that they should have known were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response” (Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980)). The Court explained interrogation includes both “express questioning” and “its functional equivalent.”

The appeals court held that the Supreme Court’s prior rulings did not clearly state that placing two suspects in a room together constitutes interrogation under Miranda. Thus, because reasonable judges could disagree about whether Bowen was “interrogated” in the interview room, federal courts lack the power to overturn his state criminal conviction.

The appellate court stated, “Federal courts have the power to overturn state criminal convictions only in exceptional circumstances. This is not one of them.” Accordingly, Bowen’s habeas corpus challenge did not warrant federal court intervention. Does that mean placing two suspects in a room, or in the back of a patrol car, and listening or recording their spontaneous conversation is permissible? Almost certainly, if an officer doesn’t invite one suspect to engage the other in conversation or make any promise of leniency for doing so.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

Ken Wallentine is the chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.