The court is faced with a case of first impression in the State of New Jersey: is a defendant's statement that he was financially unable to pay for an attorney an ambiguous request for counsel?
In the early morning hours of October 19, 1989, the body of Milagros Cardona was discovered in a car in Hoboken. Police believed that her husband, defendant Ismael Cardona, was present at her death, then left the scene and went to Perth Amboy. At approximately 9:35 a.m., Cardona was arrested in Perth Amboy by the local police and was taken to the Perth Amboy Police Department Headquarters. Captain Cruz of that department was the ranking officer present. He took it upon himself to handle the questioning of Cardona because he had
experience in prior homicide investigations, because he spoke Spanish (Cardona did not speak English), and because he knew defendant's family and was acquainted with defendant.
In order to make Cardona comfortable and at ease and to facilitate obtaining a statement, Cruz had Cardona's handcuffs removed. Then Detective Conrad Marrero read Cardona his full Miranda rights. Immediately afterward Cruz asked defendant a series of questions, repeating each right individually and asking if defendant understood each of the rights. Defendant replied that he did. He signed a Miranda card indicating the same. Captain Cruz then proceeded to question defendant concerning his personal and marital background. (Although Cruz believed all of the above was being recorded on a tape machine, apparently the machine malfunctioned and the recording did not start until after the preliminaries were completed and defendant was being questioned about his wife's death). Throughout, defendant appeared sad and cried.
At the end of defendant's statement the following exchange took place:
Cruz: Listen to me, I read the constitutional rights to you, is that right? Also, Conrad Marrero, Detective Marrero, one of the guys who arrested you, he read the constitutional rights to you? How many times did he read them to you?
Cruz: Two times, okay. Do you have any knowledge of -- is that right?
Cardona: Yes, but I don't know what that is.
Cruz: You don't know what your ...