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State v. Starling

Decided: January 10, 1983.


Menza, J.d.c. (temporarily assigned).


This is a motion to suppress a confession made by defendant. The question is whether a confession made in response to a promise made by an assistant prosecutor renders the confession involuntary, where the promise was in the first instance elicited by defendant. This is a case of first impression in New Jersey.

Defendant has confessed in 14 separate statements, each made immediately after the other, to the commission of 14 separate burglaries. The instant case involves the fifth confession in the chain of statements. The Miranda warnings were repeatedly given to defendant, commencing at the time he was taken into custody and thereafter before each of the written statements. The defendant signed 15 "waiver of rights" forms.

The State has presented evidence that defendant, while in police custody, asked to see an assistant prosecutor in order to talk to him about various crimes of which defendant claimed to have knowledge. An assistant prosecutor was called to the police department and engaged in a conversation with defendant. Defendant had already made two statements regarding two burglaries prior to speaking to the assistant prosecutor.

During the course of the conversation defendant asked the assistant prosecutor for an agreement to limit his term of imprisonment to a maximum of five years. He also asked him to assist regarding a possible parole violation. The assistant prosecutor refused defendant's request and made a counter-offer, which was accepted by defendant and reduced to writing per his request.*fn1

Defendant denies the State's version of the incident and contends that it was the police and not he who suggested that a deal be made and a prosecutor called. He concedes, however, that he did make a deal with the assistant prosecutor but asserts that it was an unfair one and that the effect of the promises made to him was to mentally coerce him into a confession, thereby rendering the confession an involuntary one.

There is little doubt that it was defendant who first expressed the desire to "make a deal," and that it was he who asked for an assistant prosecutor. The proofs demonstrate that shortly before the assistant prosecutor responded to police headquarters defendant had realized that the police knew that his alibi regarding the most recent of the burglaries was untrue; that his dwelling had already been searched for guns and jewelry and that two other suspects had pointed a finger at him as the

perpetrator of the crimes. It was, therefore, crystal clear to him that he was the prime suspect in the series of burglaries. This, coupled with his prior involvement with the criminal justice system, indicates that defendant was ready, willing and, for that matter, most anxious, to make a deal regarding the disposition of his case.

A long line of New Jersey and federal cases have addressed the question of whether statements of a defendant induced by promise of benefit or reward are involuntary. As far back as 1898 the court, in the case of Roesel v. State, 62 N.J.L. 216 (E. & A.1898), quoting from an even older case, Commonwealth v. Morey, 1 Gray 462, stated:

The ground on which confessions made by a party accused under promises of favor or threats of injury are excluded as incompetent, is not because any wrong is done to the accused in using them, but because he may be induced by the pressure of hope or fear to admit facts unfavorable to him without regard to their truth, in order to obtain the promised relief or avoid the threatened danger, and therefore admissions so obtained have no just and legitimate tendency to prove the facts admitted. [at 226-227]

A solid line of New Jersey cases have followed and solidified that proposition. See Bullock v. State, 65 N.J.L. 557, 565-566, 47 A. 62 (E. & A.1900); State v. Beard, 16 N.J. 50, 57 (1954). Similarly, the United States Supreme Court in the early case of Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 542, 18 S. Ct. 183, 186, 42 L. Ed. 568 (1897), stated that a voluntary confession is one "not . . . obtained by any direct or implied promises however slight." Other United States Supreme Court cases have reiterated that proposition. See Lynumn v. Illinois, 372 U.S. 528, 83 S. Ct. 917, 9 L. Ed. 2d 922 (1963) (if defendant confessed, the police would recommend leniency and would assist her with her welfare payment and with the custody of ...

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