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Robinson v. Percy

June 28, 1984


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 82 C 1547 -- Robert W. Warren, Judge.

Cummings, Chief Judge and Bauer and Coffey, Circuit Judges.

Author: Bauer

BAUER, Circuit Judge. Eric Robinson appeals from the district court's order denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Robinson contends that his conviction for first degree murder was unconstitutional because the Wisconsin trial court did not suppress statements which Robinson claims were obtained in violation of his fifth and sixth amendment rights. We affirm the denial of Robinson's petition.


A. The Arrest and Interrogation in New Hampshire

On August 25, 1979, Melvin Hunt was found dead of gunshot wounds in Milwaukee. Two days later, the Milwaukee police filed a complaint charging Robinson with Hunt's murder and issued a fugitive warrant for Robinson's arrest. On November 9, 1979, police in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, arrested Robinson and took him to their police station. Robinson initially insisted that he was Victor Robinson (his brother), but later admitted that he was Eric Robinson after the police told him he would be fingerprinted. The arresting officer read Robinson his Miranda rights, asked if he understood those rights, and told him that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest from Wisconsin.

Shortly thereafter, a detective photographed Robinson and again read him his Miranda rights. After determining that Robinson understood his rights, the detective asked Robinson if he wished to waive his rights and make a statement. Robinson replied that he did not want to talk but instead wanted "to keep to himself" and "do some thinking." The detective then fingerprinted Robinson and asked him several identification questions from the fingerprint information sheet. When the detective asked Robinson his address, he answered that he currently was using no address. The detective next asked Robinson if he had an address in Pennsylvania, to which he responded no, and if he had an address in Wisconsin, to which Robinson responded, "Where's Wisconsin? I've never heard of it." The information sheet also contained a space to list any distinguishing physical characteristics; because the Wisconsin warrant indicated Robinson had a scar on his forehead, the detective examined Robinson's head and noted the scar. Robinson told the detective that he had received the scar when he was pistol-whipped in Milwaukee. Robinson then asked whether Milwaukee had a life sentence for murder, and he stated that even a prisoner serving a life sentence can be released after ten years and three months.

The detective next took Robinson to an interrogation room, where a sergeant and a captain joined them. The detective again read Robinson his Miranda rights, asked whether he understood his rights, and asked whether he would sign a form waiving these rights. Robinson refused to sign the form and stated that he did not want to discuss the murder until he talked to a lawyer, but that he did not want to call a lawyer until later. The detective wrote on the waiver form: "Refused to talk about murder. Wants lawyer." The captain then explained to Robinson that they had received a warrant for his arrest from Milwaukee charging him with first degree murder, and told Robinson that he would be extradited to Milwaukee. The captain next started to discuss his own experiences in Milwaukee, and asked Robinson about how he had gotten to Milwaukee, how long he had been there, and how he had gotten his scar. When Robinson responded that he received his scar when a friend named Hunt hit him in the forehead, the captain asked him additional questions about Hunt. Robinson responded that he went to Milwaukee because Hunt had promised to teach him how to be a pimp, and that he left Milwaukee after Hunt hit him. Robinson then reiterated that he did not want to talk about the murder, and the captain ceased his questioning.

The captain then left the room, and the detective offered to bring Robinson his dinner. When Robinson said he was only thirsty, the detective went to get him a soft drink, leaving Robinson and the sergeant alone in the room. After a few minutes of silence, Robinson suddenly quoted a Bible verse: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." The sergeant asked Robinson if he had a religious background. Robinson answered that he did, and that he knew something he had to tell somebody. The sergeant suggested that Robinson pray about it. Robinson placed his head in his hands for about a minute, then raised his head and told the sergeant he had to "clear the air" or "get something off his chest." The sergeant told him that that was a personal decision he would have to make for himself.

The detective then returned to the interrogation room with a soft drink for Robinson. Robinson told him that he wanted to talk about the murder, so the detective summoned the captain. Robinson wrote on his original waiver form that he had changed him mind and was willing to talk; after the officers again read him his rights, he signed a second waiver form. Robinson agreed to allow the officers to tape his confession. On tape, Robinson was given Miranda warnings, acknowledged his rights, and agreed to waive them. Robinson then gave a full confession, and reaffirmed his waiver when he finished. Robinson was returned to Wisconsin for trial.

B. The Suppression Hearing and Appeal

Robinson made a pretrial motion to the Wisconsin trial court to suppress the statements he made to the police in Portsmouth. Robinson contended that his statements were involuntary and that he had not waived his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney. After hearing testimony from the Portsmouth police officers and arguments from both parties, the trial court ruled that all of Robinson's statements were admissible. The court found that the questions the detective asked during processing were not interrogation, and thus implicated no fifth or sixth amendment rights. The court labeled the subsequent discussion between the captain and Robinson in the interrogation room "idle conversation," and ruled that Robinson's later confession was made after a valid waiver of his rights. After the trial court made these rulings, Robinson waived his right to a jury trial. The court found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed Robinson's conviction in an unpublished order. It agreed with the trial court that the questions asked during processing were not interrogation. The appellate court disagreed, however, with the trial court's characterization of the later discussion between the captain and Robinson as "idle conversation" and ruled instead that the captain's questioning was interrogation in violation of Robinson's fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The court declined to consider whether this questioning also violated Robinson's sixth amendment right to counsel. The court concluded that the admission of Robinson's statements were harmless error, however, because the statements weere encompassed in Robinson's subsequent confession, which was made after he validly waived his fifth and sixth amendment rights.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied Robinson's petition for review. Robinson then petitioned the United States District Court for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court stated that it was in "full agreement" with the Wisconsin ...

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