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The tale behind cops' most famous words

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So are "the vast majority of people," Mr. Nelson says. Overturning a criminal conviction because of a Miranda-rule violation "should be decided on a case-by-case basis," he adds.

And so, in the retelling, the tale of Ernesto Miranda serves as a mirror on the past - and possibly America's future. The court takes up the case next Wednesday.

The Miranda case was born in a dungeonlike interrogation room in the basement of the Phoenix Police Department.

Ernesto Miranda, a high school dropout and ex-convict, was under arrest for the rape of a teenage girl a week earlier. She'd spotted his 1953 Packard, and identified the car as belonging to the man who, after picking her up, drove out to the desert and raped her. He left her with the words: "Pray for me."

Now, as the day began on March 2, 1963, officers were taking turns grilling the young Mexican-American. Their quest: a confession.

Mr. Debus, now a prominent Phoenix defense lawyer, was one of the detectives in the station that night. He doesn't remember much about the suspect. "He was a little Mexican kid. In those days, that's what he was. He was a nobody." Debus does remember, however, that his colleagues tried every trick in the book, from the "good cop, bad cop" routine to threatening to throw the book at him.

"My recollection is that several of us had a run at him," he says. "We did anything we could to get him to confess and, after a while, he did. Persistence pays off, I guess."

Miranda finally signed a written confession. During the trial, police acknowledged they did not advise him of his right to a lawyer or remind him he did not have to answer police questions.

Years later, Miranda would say of that day: "I haven't had any sleep since the day before. I'm tired. I just got off work, and they have me and they are interrogating me. They mention first one crime, then another one, they are certain I am the person."

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