In Sharp v. Roling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted a habeas corpus petition by a Kansas woman convicted in state court of kidnapping and felony murder. The evidence in question was what the Court determined to be an involuntary confession elicited by detectives on the promise that the defendant would not be jailed in exchange for her statements.
The significance of this ruling should establish a new practice that any offer by law enforcement that can be considered an offer of immunity from prosecution, regardless of whether formal or informal, will generate a high probability of suppression of any confession by a potential defendant.
The facts in the case are stipulated as follows:
In 2006, Kimberly Sharp lived homeless in Kansas with her two children. One day while she was with three homeless men at a camp site, David Owen approached the group and harangued them for being homeless. An altercation ensued. Two of the homeless men dragged Mr. Owen into the woods and tied him to a tree, where he was later found dead.
While investigating the death, police interviewed Ms. Sharp. During the interview, she confessed to playing a role and accompanied officers to the camp site to re-enact the events. The police videotaped the interview and re-enactment. She was subsequently charged in state court with first-degree felony murder and kidnapping.
Ms. Sharp moved to suppress her confessional statements, arguing they were involuntary because the police promised leniency—no jail—and help finding shelter for her and her children to live. The court denied the motion, concluding her statements were voluntary based on its factual finding that Ms. Sharp was not operating under any promises.
A jury, having received evidence of Ms. Sharp’s statements, found her guilty on both counts. The court sentenced her to life in prison (with a chance of parole after 20 years) on the murder conviction and 61 months in prison on the kidnapping conviction, to run concurrently. She appealed the denial of her motion to suppress.
The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed, concluding the record supported the trial court’s finding that Ms. Sharp was not operating under any promises. She then filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 seeking habeas relief in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, arguing her confessions were not voluntary and were admitted in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The court denied her petition and granted her a certificate of appealability (“COA”) under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c).
On appeal Ms. Sharp challenges the state supreme court’s factual findings and seeks habeas relief. Thus reviewing this matter de novo, the Tenth Circuit determined Ms. Sharp’s confessional statements following a promise of no jail time were involuntary, the state trial court erred by admitting them at trial in violation of Ms. Sharp’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and the error was harmful. The Court reversed the district court and granted Ms. Sharp’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus as to her convictions, subject to the state’s right to retry Ms. Sharp within a reasonable time.
In addition the Kansas Supreme Court made these notations:
As an advocate for the homeless, David Owen used unconventional methods. These methods included offering the use of his phone cards and cell phones for them to call their loved ones. Owen also tried to force them to return to their families by destroying their camps and taking their equipment and supplies. He often photographed the destroyed camps and carried the pictures while visiting other camps.
Owen had been reported missing for several weeks when on July 2, 2006, a canine search team found his body in a heavily wooded area on the bank of the Kansas River in Topeka. No personal property, including identification, shoes, socks, or eyeglasses, was located on or around Owen’s body. The officers recovered an axe and some pieces of rope when they searched the surrounding area. The coroner opined that Owen had been dead for several weeks or months, and he listed the manner of death as homicide. Approximately 10 days after discovery of Owen’s body, defendant Kimberly Sharp and three other homeless people—her boyfriend Charles Hollingsworth, Carl Lee Baker, and John Cornell—were arrested and subsequently charged with kidnapping and felony murder.
Sharp and Hollingsworth were seated on a bench near the river when detectives first encountered them. Detective Bryan Wheeles noticed that Sharp was scared, so he walked her further down the street, away from Detective Mike Barron and Hollingsworth. Wheeles explained that they needed to talk to her about their investigation into Owen’s death. Wheeles and Barron then separately transported Sharp and Hollingsworth to the Topeka Police Department to be interviewed.
Wheeles was informed on the way to the station that there was an outstanding warrant for Sharp out of Emporia, Kansas. When they reached the station, Sharp was put in an interview room where Wheeles Mirandized her after telling her that she was under arrest. Wheeles did not tell her specifically why she had been placed under arrest.
Wheeles then conducted a fully recorded interview with Sharp. The interview contained three basic parts: (1) an initial interview lasting 20 or 30 minutes in which Sharp described most of the events surrounding Owen’s kidnapping; (2) a re-enactment of the crimes with Wheeles at the homeless camp; and (3) a final interview at the station.
During Sharp’s initial interview, she told Wheeles that on Thursday, June 15, 2006, she was sitting around a campfire with Hollingsworth, Baker, and Cornell. Around 7 p.m., Owen walked into the camp and told these homeless people that they should not camp and should call their families.
Everyone was upset by his remarks, especially when he said he would have burned their camp if they had not been there.
Sharp told Wheeles that Baker began arguing with Owen, who then said he was going to call the police. When Owen reached for his phone, Baker and Hollingsworth knocked him to the ground. Hollingsworth then struck Owen and dragged him into the woods.
According to Sharp, she also headed into the woods to see what was going on. There she saw Owen on his knees and Hollingsworth with “an axe that he was going to [use to] kill him like that.” Sharp told Hollingsworth, “[N]o, don’t do that, don’t do that. I can’t be an accessory to this shit, you know. I can’t do that. I got two kids . . . .” She said Cornell then brought Hollingsworth a rope which was used to tie up Owen. Baker stuffed a rag
in Owen’s mouth, and the two men continued to beat him. Sharp told Wheeles that Cornell then burned all of Owen’s possessions, including his pictures, notebooks, shoes, and socks. Hollingsworth and Baker then dragged Owen into the woods, and Sharp never saw Owen again.
After additional discussion during which Sharp continued to deny any participation, Wheeles specifically asked if she helped burn Owen’s possessions. She denied helping burn or having Owen’s phone or bag at any point. Sharp eventually admitted that she helped burn. When Sharp then asked if she was going to jail, Wheeles responded, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, [no, no]. You are a witness to this thing as long as you do not
do something dumb and jam yourself.” He further explained that if she had been scared she should tell him and, “Just don’t tell me no if I ask you something.” Sharp then detailed her role in burning Owen’s phones and notebooks.
After Sharp informed Wheeles that her two kids were with Baker at another homeless camp, he left the interview. Upon his return he told her they were going to work together to get her kids “out of harm’s way.” He advised that Baker was a registered sex offender and had an outstanding arrest warrant for a parole violation. They then left together, retrieved the kids, and brought them back to the station within the hour to be with Sharp.
Approximately 1 hour later Wheeles escorted Sharp to the camp where she re-enacted the events surrounding Owen’s kidnapping and murder. During the re-enactment, Sharp told Wheeles that when Hollingsworth was standing over Owen with an axe, she had said to him, “No, don’t kill him.” Wheeles requested clarification, “Did you say ‘No, don’t kill him,’ or did you say, ‘No, don’t kill him here?’” Sharp responded, “Don’t kill him here.” (Emphasis added.) Sharp also admitted that Hollingsworth had then asked her to bring him some rope, and she told Cornell to go get it. She further admitted that it was her idea to burn Owen’s things so there would not be any evidence to tie her to the events. “I said we have to burn it ‘cause I don’t need the evidence. I don’t want to be tied to this.”
Following the re-enactment, Wheeles brought Sharp back to the station. He asked her a few more questions and then left her alone in the interview room with her children. Approximately 1 hour after returning to the station, Wheeles was notified that the district attorney’s office had decided to charge Sharp. When Wheeles told her that she was going to be placed under arrest, she became angry and upset. Sharp accused Wheeles of lying to her and said that he had tricked her, telling him: “This is bullshit.”
The Tenth Circuit Court emphasized that Detective Wheeles at the beginning of the interview stated “As long as you are straight with me, we’re not going to have any problems…I’m not going to lie to you in this investigation at all.” In addition, after retrieving her children from the homeless camp, he brought the children to the interview room and had Sharp complete a written statement describing in detail the attack on Mr. Owen.
At a subsequent suppression hearing, Detective Wheels testified that he told Ms. Sharp that the district attorney would ultimately decide whether charges would be forthcoming and that he did not make any promisers to Ms. Sharp, instead suggested she be truthful and assured her that her children would be retrieved from the homeless camp. Her council argued that the statements were not voluntary and were elicited on a promise of leniency and that he would find a safe place for her and her children to stay. The trial court denied the suppression, holding that confessions were made freely, voluntarily and intelligently.
Resulting from the confession, a trial resulted in Ms. Sharp being sentenced to life imprisonment for the first degree felony murder plus a concurrent sentence of sixty one months—parole eligibility would follow after twenty years.
The Court established federal jurisdiction to review Ms. Sharp’s habeas petition, the scope of which will not be discussed here.
The essence of the Courts finding to promises made to Ms. Sharp hinged on several facts, citing the Kansas Supreme Court erred in not suppressing the confessions. The court noted that that Detective Wheeles made statements alluding to the subterfuge that proffered her status was that of a witness and not a suspect. He further solidified this position by assuring her that he was not concerned of a previous lie that Ms. Sharp made by claiming that he was not interested in her destruction of evidence in the crime. Furthermore, he offered her the opportunity to return to the crime scene and provide a narrative of events conditional on the promise of leniency that by providing what was later held to be incriminating statements he would provide for her children’s safety. The court also held that the Ms. Sharp was in a vulnerable position given the totality of the circumstances and that relief from this condition would be guaranteed by Detective Wheeles by promises of “no jail time” and other assurances as she was a witness to the crime.
The court held that Ms. Sharps reaction of anger and surprise at her arrest further evidenced that she was under the belief that no charges would be filed against her.
During her subsequent trial court hearings the court made a harmful error in not suppressing the confession that was gathered unconstitutionally.
By Darren Smith
Source: Sharp v. Rohling
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.