by Joe Sexton
“You have the right to remain silent.” “You have the right to a lawyer.”
The instructions – given by police every day and simulated on television seemingly every night – appear straightforward enough. In truth, what are known as Miranda warnings have been the subject of legal combat for decades – over how and when they are given, and if and how they are understood.
The latest fierce and complex legal sparring on these questions unfolded on Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court, as a judge heard evidence in one of New York City’s most prominent recent murder cases.
More than two years ago, at 2:56 p.m. on May 23, 2012, Pedro Hernandez signed a piece of paper saying he understood his rights and was waiving them. He then proceeded to confess to the 1979 murder of a 6-year-old boy named Etan Patz. The confession immediately generated both hope that a notorious missing child case had been solved and worry that the case – in which the confession is virtually the only evidence – would eventually collapse.
On Tuesday, an expert testified that Hernandez, a one-time bodega clerk in the Patz family’s Manhattan neighborhood, was of such limited intelligence that it was “highly unlikely” he could have fully understood the rights he signed away in a New Jersey precinct house more than two years ago. The expert, a forensic psychologist hired by Hernandez’s defense, said his review of Hernandez’s psychological history, as well as an array of tests he had given to the accused, had led him to conclude Hernandez “functions at the lowest levels of intelligence.”
In effect, Dr. Bruce Frumkin testified that Hernandez, innocent or guilty, “didn’t know he could invoke his rights” when he confessed to abducting, strangling and disposing of Patz during his morning shift at the bodega back in May 1979. Hernandez’s lawyer has asked Justice Maxwell Wiley to declare Hernandez’s confession inadmissible, a ruling that, if made, would likely end the case.
Prosecutors with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on Tuesday quickly sought to undercut Frumkin’s findings, insisting on Hernandez’s guilt, and suggesting they think he has been exaggerating his intellectual deficits and psychiatric issues. Prosecutors have long contended that Hernandez’s confession is convincing, and that he was fully aware of his rights when he made it.
Frumkin’s testimony reflected the striking amount of scholarship that has been produced on the question of what constitutes a “knowing and intelligent” waiver of one’s rights against self-incrimination. He said he has participated in some 700 cases where prosecutors or defense lawyers were seeking to determine if a suspect had been capable of understanding his or her rights before relinquishing them. Frumkin said he had administered roughly a dozen formal psychological tests to Hernandez aimed at helping him make such a determination in this case.
Frumkin testified that it was possible for someone to make a “knowing” waiver of their rights, but not an “intelligent” one. …read more