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Tenisha Carter v. Sheryl Thompson

August 14, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 10 C 1270--William J. Hibbler, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wood, Circuit Judge.


Before POSNER, WOOD, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

After enduring 55 hours of inter- rogation at the police station, Tenisha Carter (then just 16 years old) confessed to the murder of her roommate, Brandy Thompson. In due course, Carter was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury and sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. Her case comes to this court on appeal from the district court's decision denying her petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Applying the required deference to the decisions of the state courts rejecting her constitutional challenges to the use of her confession, we affirm.


A state court's factual findings are "presumed to be correct" in a federal habeas corpus proceeding unless they are rebutted by "clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (e)(1). Carter does not challenge the Illinois Appellate Court's factual findings, and so our account of the facts is drawn exclusively from its opin- ion. Like the state court, we report some of the incon- sistencies in the evidence as it developed, because this information provides useful context for the central ques- tion before us. In the final analysis, of course, the state court resolved those issues against Carter.

Thompson's body was found on December 2, 2000, by someone living in the neighborhood close to the apart- ment building where Carter and Thompson lived. The medical examiner confirmed that the murder was espe- cially brutal: Thompson had been stabbed at least 117 times. Carter was then 16 years old and Thompson was 19.

The Chicago Police assigned Officers John Riordan and Kevin Carney to investigate the murder. Initially, they did not suspect that Carter was involved. No finger- print, DNA, or other physical evidence connected the murder to Carter, or for that matter to anyone else. On December 4, however, two Chicago detectives picked up Carter at 5:40 a.m. at her grandmother's house and took her to the Area 4 police station. She was not given Miranda warnings, and no one told her that she was free to leave and did not need to answer any questions. Officer Riordan offered Carter food, something to drink, a cigarette, and access to the bathroom. She asked for a soda, and Officer Riordan brought her one. Carter then gave him the contact information for her father, Calvin Robinson. At the time, Carter's mother was incar- cerated. Robinson had never been Carter's legal guardian, nor had she ever lived with him. Despite her minority, Carter was thus effectively without any legal guardian.

Robinson arrived at the police station at around 9:45 a.m. He testified that he had to wait for more than an hour before he was given the opportunity to speak with the detectives or his daughter. He further testified that they permitted him to speak with Carter alone for only two or three minutes. As the state court noted, Officer Carney provided conflicting testimony, stating that Robinson was taken to his daughter shortly after arriving at the station and was allowed to speak alone with her for 30 minutes before the detec- tives questioned her.

Carter informed the detective during questioning that she and Thompson had a party at their apartment on the evening of December 1. After their friends left, she stated, Tyrone Weeks came over with marijuana and smoked it with them. Thompson left the apartment around midnight to visit Timothy Watkins, her boy- friend, but she never made it there. Watkins called Carter the next day to find out if Thompson was still at the apartment. Another one of Thompson's boyfriends later stopped by the apartment looking for her. Carter initially told the detective that she was not aware that Thompson was dead until December 4. Even though Thompson's cousin and neighbor gave statements to the police on December 5 and 6 that contradicted Carter's answers, Officer Carney did not yet doubt Carter's credibility.

Carter was released to Robinson's custody after giving her statement on December 4. Mysteriously, a few hours after Carter's release, her apartment building caught fire. The investigation revealed that the cause was arson, and that the fire started in the apartment where Carter and Thompson lived. The investigators found lighter fluid, but none of the fingerprints on the bottle matched Carter or any other person tested by the police.

The police brought Carter back to the Area 4 station on December 10. After unsuccessfully attempting to contact Robinson, they proceeded to question her even though she had no adult--not her father, a guardian, or a youth counselor--present. Only Carter's boyfriend and a police officer were in the room during Officer Riordan's questioning. According to Officer Riordan, Carter was still not considered a suspect. Again, no one informed her of her rights. During this encounter, Carter's original story remained largely intact, with a few notable exceptions. She stated that Weeks had re- turned intoxicated to their apartment at 3 a.m., and that he grabbed at Carter. She also said that she overheard Weeks say that he planned to rob Thompson. Carter's boyfriend corroborated her answers, stating that Carter had told him that Weeks came out of Thompson's bedroom at around 12:30 a.m. the night she died. At the conclusion of the questioning, Carter reviewed photo- graphs for a few hours. The police could not locate her father, and so they released her to her boyfriend's father.

Officer Riordan visited Robinson's home on Decem- ber 18, hoping to find Carter to discuss the murder. Robinson explained that Carter did not stay at his home often, and that he was unable to keep her from running away. He also stated that he feared for her safety, in light of the murder and arson. He was confident, how- ever, that Carter knew who murdered Thompson. Two days later, Robinson called the police to give them Carter's latest contact information. When Officers Riordan and Carney arrived at the address, a woman opened the door with a knife. She thought they had come in response to a domestic violence call and let them in after they said they wanted to speak with Carter. Carter was indeed there; she told Officer Riordan she had attempted to contact him and agreed to return to the Area 4 station. The police later testified that Carter was still considered a witness, which is why they again did not inform her of her rights. This time, Carter would end up staying at the station for 55 hours.

When she arrived, the officers unsuccessfully at- tempted to contact Robinson. They then located a youth counselor who, after speaking with Carter, concluded that his presence was unnecessary if she was only a witness. The youth counselor later left the station and did not return. When the detectives resumed questioning her, Carter's story started to fall apart. She admitted that she had lied about seeing Weeks at 3 a.m. on Decem- ber 1. She then agreed to take a polygraph test. The de- tectives scheduled the test for the following afternoon, so that Robinson could attend. They contacted Robinson and asked if he would take Carter into his custody for the evening. According to the detectives, Robinson stated that he was worried that she would run away if they brought her there. (Robinson's account was ...

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