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State of New Jersey v. Demetrius Diaz-Bridges

January 12, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
DEMETRIUS DIAZ-BRIDGES, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT AND CROSS-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hoens

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

State v. Demetrius Diaz-Bridges (A-49/50) (067065)

Argued September 12, 2011 -- Decided January 12, 2012

HOENS, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

In this appeal, the Court considers whether defendant's request for permission to speak with his mother in the midst of his custodial interrogation was an assertion of his constitutionally-protected right to silence.

Elizabeth O'Brien was found dead on January 30, 2008. On January 31, 2008, defendant, Demetrius Diaz-Bridges, was questioned and made no statements that directly inculpated him in the crime. On May 2, 2008, three law enforcement officers conducted another interrogation that was videotaped and recorded. When the questioning started, defendant waived his Miranda rights. Initially, defendant denied committing the murder and attempted to divert the focus to one or more other suspects. After about three and a half hours, after being confronted with inconsistencies in his various stories and being told that the officers believed that he had killed O'Brien, defendant began to weep. When asked again what happened on the day of the murder, defendant said, "Can I just call my mom first?" In response to further questions, without being permitted to call his mother, defendant confessed to the murder. After defendant confessed, he again requested to speak to his mother. The detectives told defendant that they wanted to take a formal statement and defendant again waived his Miranda rights. Defendant subsequently repeated his request to talk to his mother numerous times, explaining that he wanted to talk to her so that he could stay calm, that he believed she was the only one who would understand, and that he wanted her to hear what he had done from him rather than from the police. When asked, "Do you, do you still wish to talk to us?" defendant stated: "yes[.] I have no problem talking to you; I just want to talk to my mom. That's it." As defendant continued to ask to speak with his mother, at approximately six hours and five minutes of elapsed time, he stated: "I want to hear her say it's gonna be okay . . . . And this thing is gonna do nothing but make it worse. I just want to hear her say it's gonna be all right, that's it." After a break, defendant stated that he could not answer any more questions. When asked to clarify, defendant stated: "I can't right now. I can't answer any questions" and "I don't have any problem talking, I just need a minute, I just want to . . . talk to my mom." While defendant was alone in the interrogation room, he also stated that he wanted to go home. Subsequently, defendant was allowed to telephone his mother. Thereafter, defendant again confessed.

Defendant moved to suppress all of the statements he made during the interrogations. The trial court heard testimony presented on behalf of the State and watched portions the May 2 interrogation. The DVDs were received into evidence and the trial court reviewed them in their entirety. The trial court suppressed the statements made after defendant's first request to call his mother on May 2. Referring only to the DVDs, the trial court concluded that as soon as defendant first asked to speak with his mother, the questioning should have ceased because that request could reasonably be viewed as an assertion of his right to remain silent. The Appellate Division affirmed only in part, finding that the detectives could not have reasonably interpreted defendant's initial request to speak to his mother as an invocation of the right to remain silent. Nevertheless, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court's suppression order as it applied to the interrogation beginning at approximately six hours and five minutes of elapsed time. The panel concluded that defendant's statements at that point were sufficiently ambiguous assertions of the right to remain silent that required the detectives to stop questioning defendant or to limit their questions to those designed to clarify what defendant meant. Both parties filed motions for leave to appeal, which the Court granted. 205 N.J. 11 (2010).

HELD: Because neither defendant's statements about his desire to speak with his mother nor any of his other statements were assertions of his constitutionally-protected right to silence, the suppression of any portion of his confession was in error.

1. To determine whether a defendant invoked the right to remain silent, the Court employs a totality of the circumstances approach that focuses on the reasonable interpretation of defendant's words and behaviors. If the suspect's invocation of the right to remain silent is clear and unambiguous, it must be scrupulously honored. If, however, the invocation is equivocal or ambiguous, leaving the investigating officer reasonably unsure whether the suspect was asserting that right, the Court has not required that the interrogation cease, but has instead permitted officers to clarify the ambiguous words or acts. Because both the words used and the suspect's behaviors form part of the inquiry into whether the officer should have reasonably believed that the right was being asserted, the inquiry demands a fact-sensitive analysis. When the trial court's factual findings are based only on its viewing of a recorded interrogation that is equally available to the appellate court, the appellate court may consider the recording itself and deference to the trial court's interpretation is not required. (pp. 23-27)

2. Although the mere request by an adult to speak with a parent does not equate to an invocation of the right to remain silent, the totality of the circumstances approach implicates considerations other than the suspect's words, including changes in demeanor and emotional responses to questions about a crime. There is no basis on which to conclude, merely because a suspect responds to a question by weeping or moaning, or with other changes in behavior, that he or she intends to invoke the right to silence. Although those behaviors form part of the larger mosaic of the circumstances to be considered, none of them taken alone is a sufficient indication of a decision to invoke the right to silence that the immediate cessation of the interrogation must follow. (pp. 27-32)

3. Considering the totality of the circumstances, defendant did not invoke his right to silence. Defendant willingly agreed to speak with the police on multiple occasions. Although when confronted with inconsistencies in his various stories, defendant's demeanor changed and he began to weep, one cannot reasonably equate that response with the invocation of any right. Nor is his request to speak with his mother of constitutional significance. Nothing in the words that defendant used suggested that he was asking for the questioning to stop or intended to invoke his right to silence. When defendant did clarify the reasons for the request, he told the detectives that he wanted to be the first to tell his mother what he had done. He repeatedly told them that he was willing to continue speaking with them. As a result, his requests to speak with his mother cannot be interpreted to have been a desire to secure her advice about the waiver of his rights or an assertion of silence pending the grant of permission to speak with her. (pp. 32-34)

4. Contrary to the trial court's findings, the record does not support a finding that defendant was overborne by exhaustion or psychological stress, unfairly pressured, or told that he was required to answer the interrogators questions. Although the appellate panel found that defendant's statement at six hours and five minutes sufficed to invoke the right to silence, there is nothing in those words that differed from his earlier assertions. Although the panel relied on defendant's statement that he wanted to go home, that assertion was made when he was alone in the interrogation room and there is no indication that the detectives were aware of that statement. (pp. 34-36)

5. Defendant's requests to speak with his mother sprang from the very understandable desire to tell her what he had done before she heard it from the police and to hear her words of comfort. Those requests, based on all of the circumstances, did not at any time constitute defendant's invocation of his right to silence. (p. 36)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED IN PART and REVERSED IN PART and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion.

JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, joined by CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER, is of the view that defendant's request to speak with his mother was at least an equivocal exercise of his right to remain silent.

JUSTICE PATTERSON and JUDGE WEFING (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE HOENS's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate, dissenting opinion in which CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER joins. JUSTICES LONG and LaVECCHIA did not participate.

Argued September 12, 2011

JUSTICE HOENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this appeal we consider whether defendant's request for permission to speak with his mother in the midst of his custodial interrogation was an assertion of his right to silence that required the investigating officers to cease their questioning. The trial court concluded that it was and ordered the suppression of all of the statements made by defendant after that request. The Appellate Division disagreed with that conclusion, but found that defendant did invoke his right to silence during one of his several subsequent reiterations of the request to speak with his mother and ordered the suppression of a lesser portion of his recorded confession.

Because neither defendant's statements about his desire to speak with his mother nor any of his other statements were assertions of his constitutionally-protected right to silence, we conclude that suppression of any portion of his confession was in error.

I.

Elizabeth O'Brien's lifeless body was found stuffed inside a closet in her home on the afternoon of January 30, 2008. It was determined that she died from blunt force trauma to her head. Investigators learned that the victim's two sons lived in the home and that they were friends with the defendant Demetrius Diaz-Bridges. They also learned that defendant had been at the victim's home during the evening of January 29, 2008, and into the early morning hours of the day when her body was discovered. Based on the information that they had assembled, the investigators believed that defendant was the last person who had been with the victim before her death.

At the time, defendant was residing a few houses away from the murder scene in a home belonging to his girlfriend's mother. Early in the morning on January 31, 2008, detectives from the Morris County Prosecutor's Office and the Jefferson Township Police Department went there, looking for defendant. They woke him up and asked him to get dressed and accompany them to the Jefferson Township Police Headquarters to discuss O'Brien's murder. Defendant complied with that request, was driven to the police headquarters in the company of three detectives, and was taken to an interview room. After asking defendant some preliminary general questions, the detectives advised defendant of his rights, see Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), which he acknowledged he understood and which he waived.

During the interview, which lasted approximately two hours, defendant said nothing that inculpated him in the murder. He did, however, give answers that proved to be at odds with statements he made to the investigating officers during a subsequent interview. He also agreed to submit to a polygraph examination, allowed police to take a sample of his DNA and his fingerprints, agreed to give the clothing he had been wearing on the day of the murder to the police, and consented to a search of his room. He was then taken back to his residence.

About two hours later, two detectives returned to defendant's residence and asked him if he would come back to police headquarters for further questioning. Defendant again agreed and accompanied the detectives back to headquarters, where he was again advised of his rights and waived them. He answered the detectives' questions, still making no statements that directly inculpated him in the crime. At the end of the second interview, defendant returned to his residence.

O'Brien's murder remained unsolved after defendant's January 31, 2008, interviews. Several months later, based on information the detectives had learned in their investigation, they decided to speak to defendant about the murder again. On May 1, 2008, they learned that defendant had moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was living with his mother and his stepfather. Detective Evelyn Tasoulas, who was employed by the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, telephoned defendant's stepfather and explained that she was looking for defendant. Within five minutes, defendant called Tasoulas back. Tasoulas told defendant that she wanted to rectify active warrants*fn1 for him in Morris County. Although she did not mention the O'Brien murder, defendant told her he knew about the warrants and that he was "a little nervous" about "the Jefferson thing." Nevertheless, defendant, who Tasoulas described as being calm, relaxed, and cooperative throughout their ten-minute telephone conversation, agreed to meet in Raleigh.

Later that day, Tasoulas, accompanied by Sergeant Stephen Wilson and Detective Supervisor Don Dangler of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, Morris County Sheriff's Office Detective Mike Curullo, and Jefferson Police Detective James Caruso, drove to North Carolina to meet with defendant. On May 2, 2008, they met defendant at mid-morning in a parking lot in Raleigh. Wilson introduced himself, told defendant that he was with the Major Crimes Unit, and explained that he was there to speak to defendant specifically about the O'Brien homicide. After speaking to the detectives for approximately fifteen minutes, defendant agreed to go with them to the Raleigh Police Department Headquarters.

When they arrived at police headquarters, the detectives placed defendant in a room equipped with video and audio recording capabilities. Wilson, Dangler and Caruso conducted the interrogation, which was videotaped and recorded in its entirety.*fn2 Because of the nature of the analysis undertaken by the trial and the appellate courts and the issues raised before this Court, we recount in detail what happened during the nearly ten hours of interview that followed.

At 11:25 a.m., when the questioning started, the detectives advised defendant of his Miranda rights, which he acknowledged that he understood and waived. The detectives then reminded defendant that there were outstanding warrants for him in New Jersey in matters unrelated to the O'Brien murder and advised him that he had the right to have a public defender present for any questioning concerning those unresolved matters. Defendant was also told that an attorney had been assigned to represent him in his unrelated Morris County cases and that he had the right to have that attorney present during their interview with him. After acknowledging that he was aware of these rights, defendant waived them as well.

During the first three hours*fn3 of the interrogation, defendant denied committing the murder. Instead, he gave an account of his activities on the day of the murder and attempted to divert attention from himself by suggesting that two other young men in the neighborhood were probably the culprits. Eventually, he told the detectives that the victim's son Tyler had committed the murder and had confessed to him. His explanation, all delivered in a tone and with gestures suggesting he was only trying to help the detectives find the killer, was inconsistent with some of his prior statements and with other information about the crime that the detectives had already learned.

Approximately three hours and eleven minutes into the videotape, Wilson told defendant that he did not believe that defendant was telling the truth. Wilson suggested that defendant was "holding back" and that he would "not . . . be able to hold it forever." Defendant continued to deny that he was involved in the murder and insisted that he was not holding anything back. For the next twenty-five minutes, the detectives attempted to persuade defendant to reveal information by repeating that they thought he was holding back and that his statements to them were not true. Wilson suggested that it would be a good time for defendant to level with them, telling him that "the truth comes out . . . sooner or later it comes out of the darkness and into the light. And now's the time . . . It's gonna come out. You still want to hold onto it?" Defendant continued to deny any involvement nonetheless.

After about three and a half hours of elapsed time, Wilson again said that he believed defendant had killed O'Brien. He confronted defendant directly, revealing to him that his earlier interviews had been videotaped and that there were inconsistencies between the answers he had given previously and the ones he was now giving to the investigators. Although shaking his head in denial, defendant leaned over and began to weep. The detectives then tried to console defendant as they continued to tell him that he would feel better if he told them what happened or explained why it had happened.

About ten minutes passed during which time defendant looked down at the floor and alternated between mumbling, sniffling, crying and rubbing his eyes, while Caruso and Wilson tried to comfort him. At approximately three hours and forty-two minutes of elapsed time, defendant was asked again what happened on the day of the murder. After a momentary pause, defendant said, "Can I just call my mom first?" Wilson then responded by telling defendant that they wanted "to hear first what you have to say because we, you want . . . right now you got to get it off your chest." As defendant continued crying softly, Caruso asked if he wanted to talk to his mother because he was ashamed. For the next few minutes the detectives both consoled him and tried to prompt him to tell them what happened. Apart from several comments not responsive to any questions, defendant cried and sniffled.

At approximately three hours and fifty-one minutes elapsed time, in response to the detectives' further requests that he tell them what had happened, defendant started to confess to the murder. While doing so, he cradled his face in his hands and looked at the floor, and he intermittently sniffled and cried. He described an argument with O'Brien on the day of the crime, during which she became very angry and slapped him three times in his face because he did not have any drugs to give her. He explained that he pushed her away from him, that she fell and struck her head on the edge of a coffee table, that in a panic he then hit her on the back of her head three or four times with an exercise weight, after which he hid her body in the closet. The confession continued for approximately an hour and fifteen minutes.

After defendant confessed, the detectives asked if he wanted anything and offered him a tissue. He responded by saying that he wanted to talk to his mother. Wilson told defendant that they would arrange a call with his mother, but that they wanted defendant to relax and get his thoughts together. The detectives then took a thirty minute break while Dangler remained with defendant. During the break, defendant again asked if he could speak to his mother, and Dangler replied that they would arrange it. Minutes later, after defendant again asked if he could make that phone call, Dangler left the room, telling defendant that he would ask about the phone.

After the break, the detectives told defendant that they wanted to take a formal statement. Defendant, who was plainly finding it unpleasant to relive the murder, responded by saying "I need a minute . . . I gotta . . . I hate talking about this shit . . . I don't want to talk about it, man." After giving defendant a few moments to compose himself, the detectives again advised defendant of his Miranda rights in preparation for taking a formal statement. Defendant again acknowledged that he understood each of his rights and agreed to waive them. When asked if he wanted to speak with the detectives, he responded by saying "Yeah. But I think I need a minute . . . I been thinking about this . . . Feel real bad." Defendant told the detectives that he felt sick and needed to use the bathroom, at which point they interrupted the interrogation to accommodate that request.

When the interrogation resumed, defendant again began to ask to talk to his mother, repeating his request numerous times during the next three-quarters of an hour. Most significant were his comments to the detectives about the reasons why he wanted to speak with her. In particular, he explained that he wanted to talk to her so that he could "stay calm," that he believed she was the only one who would understand, and that he wanted her to hear what he had done from him rather than from the police. In response to one of these statements, Wilson asked defendant directly, "Do you, do you still wish to talk to us?" and defendant replied by saying: "yes[.] I have no problem talking to you; I just want to talk to my mom. That's it."

As defendant continued to ask to speak with his mother, at approximately six hours and five minutes elapsed time, he again explained his reason, saying: "I want to hear her say it's gonna be okay. And (inaudible) I don't have nobody. I have nobody. And this thing is gonna do nothing but make it worse. I just want to hear her say it's gonna be all right, that's it." After defendant asked to use a cell phone to call his mother, the detectives took another break, telling him they wanted to give him the chance to "relax" and "get [himself] together."

That break lasted about twenty-five minutes. When the detectives resumed the interview, defendant said "I can't answer no more questions right now, man." Sergeant Wilson then requested that defendant clarify that statement, asking: "Are you saying that you can't answer any more questions or that you don't want to answer any more questions?" Defendant then turned away from the detectives, held his head in his hands, and responded: "I can't right now. I can't answer any questions." Sergeant Wilson then asked defendant if he wanted to take another break and if he still wished to talk to them, to which defendant responded, "I don't have any problem talking, I just need a minute, I just want to . . . talk to my mom."

The detectives decided to take an additional break, offered defendant food and drink, and left the room. While he was alone in the interrogation room at approximately six hours, forty-five minutes elapsed time, defendant began to cry and said "I can't do this shit, man. I just want to go home. . . . I'm so sorry, man." A few minutes later the detectives re-entered the room ...


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