Tuesday’s decision comes via an appeal stemming from a fatal shooting in January 2000 outside a shopping mall in Southfield, Mich.
Van Chester Thompkins was arrested about a year later and interrogated by police. During the questioning, Mr. Thompkins was advised of his Miranda rights and given a form to sign. He refused to sign it.
Nonetheless, police say Thompkins verbally confirmed that he understood his rights. Thompkins disputes this.
Thompkins remained largely silent during most of a three-hour interrogation. About 2 hours and 45 minutes into the questioning, one of the officers asked Thompkins if he believed in God. When he answered, “Yes,” police say his eyes welled up with tears.
The officer then asked: “Do you pray to God?”
The suspect answered: “Yes.”
Another question: “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?”
Thompkins answered: “Yes."
Thompkins was charged with first-degree murder. At trial, his lawyer tried to keep the incriminating statement out of the trial by arguing that his client had invoked his right to remain silent.
The trial judge allowed the statement to be introduced as evidence. Thompkins was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On appeal, a federal judge rejected Thompkins’ claim that he had invoked his right to remain silent during the interrogation. That decision was reversed by a panel of the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
The appeals court said Thompkins’ incriminating statement must be thrown out because his nearly three hours of silence in the interrogation room amounted to an invocation of his right to remain silent.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. In a majority opinion joined by the court’s conservative wing, Justice Kennedy said Thompkins’ actions during the interrogation were ambiguous.
“Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk with the police,” Kennedy wrote. “Had he made either of these simple, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his right to cut off questioning.”