Mr. Lawson has not shown the police involuntarily induced his Miranda waiver or his confession.

 

State v. Lawson

2023 – Ohio – 3456

Ninth District Appellate Court

Summit County, Ohio

September 27, 2023

 

Mr. Lawson Committed a Homicide While Off His Meds

On Saturday November 30, 2019 Mr. Donnel Lawson shot and killed his mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Melvin Peters while Mr. Peters was lying on his stomach in bed. The three lived together and, before the shooting, Mr. Lawson had consumed alcohol and taken drugs. Although Mr. Lawson had been prescribed medication to control his mental illness, he was not taking his medication at the time of the shooting.

The victim, Mr. Melvin Peters, the suspect Mr. Donnell Lawson and Mr. Lawson’s mother lived in the area of Cordova Avenue near Good Park Boulevard in Akron, Ohio.  Mr. Lawson shot and killed Mr. Peters and claimed his mental illness barred him from waiving his Miranda rights.

Mr. Lawson and His Mother Gave Conflicting Stories

Police officers brought Mr. Lawson and his mother to the police station to be interviewed. During their separate interviews, they told conflicting stories. When detectives reported those inconsistencies to the mother during a second interview, she admitted Mr. Lawson had shot Mr. Peters. The detectives then spoke to Mr. Lawson again, and he admitted he shot Mr. Peters.

Indicted, Tried, Convicted and Sentenced

A grand jury indicted Mr. Lawson for murder, felony murder, felonious assault, having a weapon under disability, and several firearm specifications. He was found competent to stand trial and withdrew a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity once an expert determined he was sane when he shot Mr. Peters. Mr. Lawson moved to suppress statements he made to detectives, but the trial court denied his motion. A jury found him guilty on all counts, and the trial court sentenced him to a total of eighteen years to life in prison.

Appeal

Mr. Lawson now appeals from his convictions and raises two assignments of error for our review.

Mr. Lawson Argues his Inculpatory Statements Should be Suppressed

In his first assignment of error, Mr. Lawson argues the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress. He argues the court should have excluded statements he made to the police because he did not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights and his statements were involuntary. Upon review, we reject his argument.

Established Case Law

“When a suspect is questioned in a custodial setting, the Fifth Amendment requires that he receive Miranda warnings to protect against compelled self-incrimination.” State v. Wesson, 2013-Ohio-4575.

“The State has the burden of proving by the preponderance of the evidence that a defendant’s waiver of Miranda rights was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.” State v. Dunlap, 2018-Ohio-3658.

The waiver must have been “‘a free and deliberate choice’” of the accused rather than a product of “‘intimidation, coercion, or deception.”” State v. Dailey, 53 Ohio St.3d 88, 91 (1990), quoting Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412, 421 (1986).

The Supreme Court has recognized that “the use of an inherently coercive tactic by police is a prerequisite to a finding of involuntariness.” State v. Perez, 2009- Ohio-6179.

Mr. Lawson was Schizophrenic and had Consumed Alcohol and Drugs Prior to the Homicide

The trial court made each of the following factual findings. The police were dispatched to a residence regarding a homicide shortly after 7:00 a.m. They encountered Mr. Lawson and his mother at the residence, brought them back to the police station, and placed them in separate interview rooms. At that time, a detective gave Mr. Lawson water to drink. Mr. Lawson then waited in his interview room while two detectives interviewed his mother. During their interview with the mother, the detectives learned Mr. Lawson suffered from schizophrenia and had a mental health-related episode several days earlier. They also learned he had stayed awake until the early hours of the morning, consuming alcohol and using drugs.

Mr. Lawson Talked to Himself Prior to the Recitation of Miranda

The detectives concluded their initial interview with the mother and briefly observed Mr. Lawson before beginning his interview. As they watched Mr. Lawson, they noticed him speaking to himself. Mr. Lawson was able to follow along, however, as one of the detectives obtained a buccal swab from him and conducted a gunshot residue test. In fact, when the detective sought to obtain Mr. Lawson’s buccal swab, Mr. Lawson told the detective the police should already have his DNA on file from an earlier, unrelated incident. The detective administered Mr. Lawson’s Miranda warnings by reading them from a card. When she asked him whether he understood each of his rights, he responded affirmatively.

Mr. Lawson sometimes touched the walls, hummed, rapped, or talked to himself. He also repeated words and phrases and “meandered off topic” while speaking with the detectives.

The trial court found Mr. Lawson spent a total of six hours and forty-two minutes in his interview room, but much of that time was spent waiting while detectives spoke with his mother. The detectives interviewed the mother twice and interviewed Mr. Lawson twice. Collectively, his interviews lasted two hours and forty minutes. The trial court found that, during interview breaks, Mr. Lawson sometimes touched the walls, hummed, rapped, or talked to himself. He also repeated words and phrases and “meandered off topic” while speaking with the detectives. Nevertheless, he answered questions posed to him by the detectives and discussed concerns he had for his family, his mental illness, and his relationship with his mother. The trial court found no evidence that Mr. Lawson did not understand what was happening during his interviews or the impact of the statements he made.

Trial Court Concluded Mr. Lawson Provided a Knowingly, Voluntarily and Intelligent Miranda Waiver

The trial court found that detectives never engaged in any tactics to threaten, harass, abuse, or coerce Mr. Lawson. They let him know his mother had “told [them] what happened,” and encouraged him to do the same. They never promised him leniency, misstated the law, or discussed any potential punishments. The trial court concluded that Mr. Lawson knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and voluntarily confessed. Consequently, it denied his motion to suppress.

Mr. Lawson Argues that Since he Suffered from Untreated Mental Health Issues He Could Not Waive Miranda

Mr. Lawson has not challenged any of the trial court’s factual findings. Instead, he challenges the court’s legal conclusion that he acted in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner when he (1) waived his Miranda rights, and (2) confessed. While he had prior experience with the criminal justice system, Mr. Lawson argues, the detectives never asked him about his level of education or his ability to read or write. They failed to ensure he understood his “complex constitutional right,” particularly when they knew he had not slept enough, had been drinking, and had taken drugs. Further, Mr. Lawson argues, the detectives knew he suffered from untreated mental health issues and observed behavior that should have alerted them to his altered mental state. Because the evidence showed he did not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights and confess, Mr. Lawson argues, the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress.

Ninth District Appellate Court Determines Mr. Lawson Properly Waived His Miranda Rights

Mr. Lawson nodded his head and responded affirmatively when a detective explained she would need to obtain DNA and gunshot residue samples from him. He signed the forms he was handed and asked why the police did not already have his information on file. He gave no indication he could not understand the forms he was handed, write his name, or understand the procedures the detective performed in taking samples from his mouth and hands. Instead, he chatted with the detective as she prepared to collect the samples. When the detective read Mr. Lawson his Miranda rights, she paused after reading each right and asked him whether he understood the right she had described. Each time, he said he understood. He also responded affirmatively when the detective finished reading his rights and asked whether he wished to speak with her. Mr. Lawson spoke coherently, and the detective testified that she did not notice any indicators of impairment while speaking with him. The record supports the trial court’s conclusion that the State proved Mr. Lawson knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights.

Ninth District’s Determination was Based on Established Case Law

As to the voluntariness of Mr. Lawson’s Miranda waiver and confession, he has failed to identify any coercive tactics on the part of the police that would trigger a totality of the circumstances review. The detectives provided him with water, afforded him a lengthy break while speaking with his mother, and never engaged in any physical abuse. Additionally, there is no evidence they denied him food, sleep, or medical treatment. While the detectives repeatedly encouraged Mr. Lawson to tell them what really happened, “[a]dmonitions to tell the truth are considered to be neither threats nor promisesState v. Loza, 71 Ohio St.3d 61, 67 (1994). Mr. Lawson’s argument that his confession was involuntary is based on the detectives having interviewed him when they knew he had mental health issues, had not slept, had consumed alcohol, and had taken drugs. Yet, “the use of an inherently coercive tactic by police is a prerequisite to a finding of involuntariness.” Perez at ¶ 71. See also Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 164 (1986). This Court will not engage in a review of the totality of the circumstances when Mr. Lawson has not set forth any evidence or argument in support of that prerequisite. Upon review, Mr. Lawson has not shown the police involuntarily induced his Miranda waiver or his confession. We reject his argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress. As such, Mr. Lawson’s first assignment of error is overruled.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Lawson, 2023 – Ohio – 3456 and news articles.

State v. Lawson, 2023 – Ohio – 3456 was issued by the Ninth District Appellate Court and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Lorain, Medina, Summit and Wayne.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Fifth Amendment Standard – MirandaWhen a suspect who suffers from mental illness is accused of a crime and is subjected to a custodial interview, the mental illness is not a bar to the individual waiving his Fifth Amendment rights. In Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) the U.S. Supreme Court held that a person must ‘Knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently” waive his Fifth Amendment rights.
  2. Miranda and Mental Illness – The Miranda standard was further evaluated with mental illness by the U.S. Supreme Court in Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986). In that the decision the court held “Miranda protects defendants against government coercion leading them to surrender rights protected by the Fifth Amendment; it goes no further than that. Respondent’s perception of coercion flowing from the “voice of God,” however important or significant such perception may be in other disciplines [such as psychiatry], is a matter to which the United States Constitution does not speak.”.  Consequently, just because the person suffers from mental illness does not mean that the person cannot waive their constitutional rights.
  3. Miranda Waiver – The waiver must have been “‘a free and deliberate choice’” of the accused rather than a product of “‘intimidation, coercion, or deception.”” State v. Dailey, 53 Ohio St.3d 88, 91 (1990), quoting Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412, 421 (1986).
  4. Pre-Sent Arms! The unidentified Akron detectives who conducted the interview of Killer Lawson should be highly commended. The detectives complied with the Fifth Amendment and all established case law to obtain a confession and ultimately his conviction. Well done!

Does your agency train on Custodial Interrogation?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.