Tennessee criminal defense attorneys will rarely participate in a murder case as gruesome as the case of David Climer, Jr. Climer, a Gibson County, Tennessee resident, was convicted by a jury of first degree premeditated murder and abuse of a corpse in relation to the 2007 murder of his mother Doris Deberry. He appealed his conviction to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which granted him a new trial earlier this month based on issues with the waiver of his Miranda rights [See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966)]. The full opinion of the Climer decision can be found here.
This case begins with the disappearance of Doris Deberry, who was David Climer, Jr's. mother. Climer reported to family members that Deberry ran off with a Hispanic male named Ray. The family became suspicious and eventually made a missing persons report which prompted police to go the home that Deberry and Climer shared. Climer was drunk when police first made contact with him, and he was taken into custody and placed in a "drunk tank."
During a custodial interrogation prior to arrest, Climer was read his Miranda rights by a detective. He was then asked to sign a form stating that he had been advised of his rights; however, he refused to sign the document. The detective then proceeded to ask Climer questions regarding the disappearance of his mother. According to the court record, on one occasion Climer stated that he was scared to talk without an attorney. In another instance, Climer asked if he could "have...an appointed lawyer right now," to which the detective told him "...not at this time," and continued to question Climer. After three hours of interrogation, Climer finally confessed that he dismembered his mother's body and buried the body in Madison County, Tennessee.
Climer never confessed to murdering Deberry, and instead claimed that Deberry died from complications from an earlier fall. After an arrest warrant was executed, Climer was brought back in from the "drunk tank" to speak with the detective that conducted the prior interrogation. The detective repeated the Miranda rights to Climer, and Climer again refused to sign the acknowledgment form. During this second interrogation, Climer took the detective to the burial spot of Deberry's remains.
Climer's defense made a motion to suppress the confession, but the trial court denied the request stating there was no evidence of abuse of Climer during the investigation or subsequent incarceration. The trial court also ruled that the Defendant's remarks to the investigator did not amount to Climer invoking his right to counsel. Climer was convicted, and his defense appealed the decision. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision, and the case was ultimately appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The question of Climer's invocation of counsel was under de novo review by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court applied Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), which states that a suspect "must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of any attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires." 384 U.S. at 479. In addition to the above protection, the Miranda case requires a suspect to "knowingly and intelligently" waive said rights. The Supreme Court also looked to McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U.S. 171, 176 111 S.Ct. 2204, 115 L.Ed.2d 158 (1991) which states that once a suspect invokes a right to counsel, any subsequent waiver at the authorities' request, and not at the suspect's request, is the product of "inherently compelling pressures" and not the purely voluntary choice of the suspect.
A primary issue which the Supreme Court had to address was whether Climer's statements were actually a stated desire to have an attorney present. The Court looked to Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 114 S.Ct. 2350, 129 L.Ed.2d 362 (1994) in which the Court declared "invocation of the Miranda right to counsel requires, at a minimum, some statement that can reasonably be construed to be an expression of a desire for the assistance of an attorney." Id., at 459.
In applying the aforementioned case law, the Supreme Court applied the Davis standard to determine if Climer effectively invoked his right to counsel. The Court examined the transcripts from Climer's interrogations to examine the three instances in which the defense claimed Climer invoked his right. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and Court of Criminal Appeals that Climer never unequivocally invoked his right to counsel. However, the Court found that Climer never expressly waived his Miranda rights. The Supreme Court pointed to several statements in the interrogation transcripts in which Climer talked about an appointed attorney. The Court concluded that Climer's comments regarding an appointed attorney clearly showed that Climer did not understand his Miranda rights and therefore could not intelligently waive said rights.
After determining that Climer did not unequivocally waive his Miranda rights, the Supreme Court had to determine if the error was harmless or would have impacted the verdict of the case. The Court wrote:
As the United States Supreme Court has observed: "A confession is like no other evidence." Fulminante, 499 U.S. at 296. "[T]he defendant's own confession is probably the most probative and damaging evidence that can be admitted against him." Id. (quoting Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 139 (1968) (White, J., dissenting)). This is true because a defendant's admissions "come from the actor himself, the most knowledgeable and unimpeachable source of information about his past conduct." Id. (quoting Bruton, 391 U.S. at 140 (White, J., dissenting)).
The Supreme Court ruled that Climer's statements were not harmless error and reversed his conviction, and remanded the case to the lower court for a retrial consistent with its opinion. The Court also decided that the physical evidence used in Climer's trial (and discovered as a result of his custodial statements) was correctly admitted into evidence since Climer's statements were not coerced. Therefore, the prosecution may use the same physical evidence at Climer's new trial.