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Breaking Legal Developments


Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. Georgia Supreme Court Finds No Privacy Right In Fire Destroyed Trailer


In Riley v. State, S04P1039, SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA, (Oct. 25, 2004), a jury convicted William David Riley, Sr., of three counts of malice murder and two counts of first-degree arson. The murder victims were Riley's three young children. The jury recommended a death sentence for each murder after finding beyond a reasonable doubt seven statutory aggravating circumstances. The trial court denied Riley's motion for new trial, and he appealed. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed.

Neighbors and firefighters reported odd behavior by Riley during the fire. They testified that he did not try to save his children and that his demeanor was cold, unemotional, and dry. While the trailer was burning, and before the firefighters arrived, he ran to the back of the trailer, yelled for his children to awake, banged on the outside wall a few times, and then moved his car away from the trailer. He was the only adult who escaped the fire fully dressed. He had some ash and soot on his face and in his nose, but no burns on his hands, arms or anywhere on his body.

Witnesses testified that Riley rarely interacted with the children and had used derogatory names when referring to them. He had made threats to kill them to a prior girlfriend if she called the Department of Family and Children Services ("DFACS"). Riley's wife, the mother of the victims, moved out in May 2000 and Riley was in dire financial straits. He had been denied welfare benefits and was facing eviction; the eviction hearing had been scheduled for August 18. A neighbor heard Riley tell Jacque that he would kill the children before he would let DFACS take them. He also said he would burn the trailer before he would be evicted. In an argument with Jacque three days before the fire, another neighbor heard Riley say he wished Jacque and the children were dead. Neighbors also testified that Riley and Jacque had a loud argument outside the trailer a few hours before the fire started.

One of the firefighters at the scene of the fire asked Riley if the children could have obtained a cigarette lighter and Riley insisted that was not possible because "we keep them put up." Riley suggested a short circuit as the fire's possible cause. The police tape-recorded an interview with Riley at the scene in which he said that he had been facing eviction because he had refused to pay his rent due to the trailer's electrical problems, including exposed wires and cracked light fixtures. He said the adults had awakened that morning too late to go to work so everyone but he had gone back to sleep. Riley drank coffee and read; his children woke up and he fed them and then sent them back to their room to play. He went to the children's room at 10:30 a.m. and told them to get dressed. There were no interior doors in the trailer, except one to the bathroom. Riley and Jacque had tacked a sheet over the doorway to the master bedroom. He went to the master bedroom and dressed; Jacque was just waking up. As he was putting on his second boot, he heard 3-year-old Samantha scream, "Daddy, help me!" He ran into the hallway and saw smoke. He went to the doorway of the children's bedroom and saw flames on the far wall of the room behind his son's bed. The children's room had two twin-sized beds that filled almost the entire room; the room was 9' 1" by 7' 8" and the corner of the nearest bed was only 2.5 feet from the entrance to the room. Riley, who is 6' 5" tall, said he could not see his children through the smoke so he reached into the room and stepped on a bed to try to reach them. He was unable to do this because the heat was too intense, so he went outside, picked up a piece of wood, and threw it through the children's window. He knew it was over when the screaming stopped and flames started coming out the window. He then moved his car because he was afraid it might explode.

A state arson investigator concluded that the fire had been intentionally set; it had started in the children's bedroom near the center of the trailer, exited this room, and traveled down the hall to the living room. No cigarette lighter was found in the children's room, where the three bodies were discovered. The investigator found no problems with the electrical system; electrical shorts will melt wire with a "beading" effect similar to the effect of welding on metal but no such beading of the wires in the trailer was found. He also found no problems with the electrical appliances. An electrician who inspected the trailer for the county in May 2000, just before Riley moved in, agreed that the wiring was not defective and that almost all the light fixtures had been recently replaced. The landlord and the mobile home park maintenance worker testified that Riley had never complained about any electrical problems or faulty wiring in his trailer. The police found a cigarette lighter on the ground eight feet from the trailer.

On the night of August 16, Riley drove to the sheriff's office for another audiotaped interview. When a GBI agent confronted him with his belief that Riley was not telling the truth about the fire, Riley stated, "My son plays with lighters. Okay?" Riley said he left a lighter out that he thought was empty and that his son must have found it, shook it, and started the fire in the children's room. He also asserted that he was asleep when the fire started and he first heard Samantha screaming, but the agent reminded him that he had earlier said he was getting dressed. When the agent pointed out that Riley said he had gone into the children's small bedroom to try to save them, but that his arm hair was not even singed, Riley then said he had not gone into their room. Eventually, Riley admitted that, while the children were sleeping and to scare Jacque, he used a cigarette lighter to set fire to the bedding on the corner of his son's bed. When he returned to the children's room two or three minutes later, he saw that his son had jumped to the girls' bed "and they started coughing and hacking and everything else and the heat from that fire just got 'em."

Riley's second statement was not the product of an illegal arrest nor was it involuntary. Riley drove to the sheriff's office on August 16 and agreed to be interviewed. The police read him his Miranda rights and he executed a written waiver of them. Riley was 31 years old, has an eleventh grade education, and has average intelligence. He was lucid, sober, and appeared to understand his rights and the waiver. The interview lasted less than two hours and was audiotaped. His incriminating statement was reduced to writing and he signed each page. The evidence shows that Riley was free to leave until he admitted setting the fire that killed his children. Although the interview became confrontational and the officers repeatedly accused Riley of lying, they neither made threats nor promises to him. They did suggest to Riley that Jacque had "dumped it on poor old Bill," which was not true, but this suggestion was not calculated to produce an untruthful response. See DeYoung v. State, 268 Ga. 780 (8) (493 SE2d 157) (1997); Ritter v. State, 268 Ga. 108 (1) (485 SE2d 492) (1997). In fact, the officers spent a considerable portion of their questioning trying to convince Riley to incriminate Jacque, but in the end he only incriminated himself. The officers' bluff that scientific evidence would tell them exactly what happened in the trailer also did not make Riley's statement inadmissible, even considering that they admitted at the pretrial hearing that they had overstated their investigative capability. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the court concluded that the trial court did not err by finding that Riley's second statement to the police was voluntary and admissible. See Lee v. State, 270 Ga. 798 (2) (514 SE2d 1) (1999); DeYoung, supra; OCGA 24-3-50.

Riley alleged that the trial court erred by limiting the testimony of Dr. Stark, a psychologist called to testify by Riley, regarding Riley's susceptibility to giving a false confession due to the police interrogation technique utilized. Dr. Stark tested and evaluated Riley before trial. Although a defendant's statement may be determined to be voluntary in a pretrial hearing, "the physical and psychological environment that yielded the confession can also be of substantial relevance to the ultimate factual issue of the defendant's guilt or innocence." Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 683, 689 (106 S. Ct. 2142, 90 L. Ed. 2d 636) (1986). The record clearly shows that the jury was fully apprised of the psychological environment under which Riley gave his statement. Dr. Stark testified about Riley's personality traits that made him submissive and "easily led" and Riley's sister testified about his willingness to give in when falsely accused of truancy by his father. The jury also heard Riley's audiotaped statement.

However, the trial court refused to allow Dr. Stark to testify before the jury about false confession theory in order to show that the police interview technique could have led Riley to falsely confess. Riley alleges that this refusal was error. The trial court held a hearing on Dr. Stark's proposed testimony regarding false confession theory. Dr. Stark testified that he became conversant about the issue of false confessions after being retained in the case; he had never testified before a jury about false confession theory and knew of no expert who had done so in a Georgia court. He stated that literature on this subject shows that some police interview techniques "sometimes elicit confessions that hold up later on, but we also know that there are cases where they lead to what later on are shown to be false confessions." He could not determine the frequency of elicited false confessions and stated that the literature "was not even saying that most confessions are false," but he proffered that in his professional opinion the interview technique employed by the officers in this case could have generated a false confession.

Dr. Stark also testified that his knowledge of the subject was derived from reading five articles about false confession theory. All of the articles had been recently published, with the first being published in 1988. Dr. Stark admitted that the theory is "mainly anecdotal" and that most of the specific examples of false confessions in the articles involved police threats or coercion, suspects who were juveniles or mentally retarded, or interrogations that lasted for ten or more hours where the suspect was isolated and deprived of sleep. Dr. Stark also admitted that some of the articles have been professionally criticized and that one critic has asserted that some of the allegedly false confessions cited were not in fact false. When asked if the false confession theory had reached a verifiable stage of scientific certainty, Dr. Stark replied: I don't think it's going to reach a verifiable study stage of scientific certainty until a number of years go by and we know more, do more research. We need much more research and more experience with it. I think all the writers that I have read so far agree that the phenomenon happens, we just don't know how often. When the trial court asked what his testimony about false confessions would supply that is outside the common knowledge of jurors, Dr. Stark answered, "I guess to simply let the jurors know that this phenomenon does occur and it's being studied and it is in its infancy."

The trial court did not err by limiting Dr. Stark's testimony concerning false confession theory. Contrary to Riley's assertion at trial and on appeal, the knowledge that a false confession can be obtained from a suspect by police is not beyond the ken of the average juror; this knowledge is implicit in the jury charges on the voluntariness, credibility, and corroboration of a defendant's statement to the police. See Suggested Pattern Jury Instructions, Vol. II: Criminal Cases (3rd ed.), pp. 21-23; OCGA 24-3-50; OCGA 24-3-53. With regard to whether certain police interview techniques may result in a greater likelihood of false confessions by the person being interrogated, the trial court examined Dr. Stark's proposed testimony on this subject and read the articles that formed the only basis of his knowledge of the theory (see Harper v. State, 249 Ga. 519 (1) (292 SE2d 389) (1982)), and the court concluded, as did Dr. Stark, that false confession theory has not reached a verifiable stage of scientific certainty. See Id. Further, the theory relies almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and the anecdotal evidence contained in the articles mainly involved suspects who were juveniles, or who were mentally retarded, or who were interrogated for many hours, none of which applies to Riley. Dr. Stark also admitted that false confession theory is in its infancy and that more research is needed to establish its reliability. In fact, the author of an article cited by Dr. Stark and made part of the record concluded: The false confession theory needs further study and refinement. Consequently, the admission of expert testimony based on this new theory is premature and therefore unreliable. Currently, the empirical base that supports the theory has too many unanswered questions, no known error rate, and just one laboratory experiment to back it up. This foundation cannot support reliable conclusions just yet. "The Admissibility of False Confession Expert Testimony," Major James R. Agar II, The Army Lawyer, August 1999, p. 42. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to allow expert testimony on false confession theory. See Johnson v. State, 272 Ga. 254 (1) (526 SE2d 549) (2000) ("[T]he admission or exclusion of [expert testimony] 'lies within the sound discretion of the trial court, whose decision will not be disturbed on appeal absent a clear abuse of discretion.'[Cit.]"); Harper, supra at 525-526.

The trial court also excluded part of Dr. Stark's testimony regarding whether Riley's lack of emotion may be attributable to his personality, partly because it determined that Riley's counsel had not complied with the discovery obligations of OCGA 17-16-4 (b) (2) (defense must provide prosecutor, before trial, with report of mental health examination, including summary of the basis for the expert opinion rendered in the report). See OCGA 17-16-6; Reddick v. State, 264 Ga. App. 487, 492 (3) (591 SE2d 392) (2003) (trial court may limit a defense witness's testimony due to a violation of OCGA 17-16-1 et seq.). Pretermitting whether there was sufficient bad faith and prejudice shown to authorize this exclusion, see Reddick, supra at 492-493, the court concluded that any error would be harmless in light of all the other evidence. See Blair v. State, 273 Ga. 668, 669-670 (4) (543 SE2d 685) (2001). Lastly, the trial court did not err by finding Dr. Stark's proposed testimony on false confession theory inadmissible in the penalty phase. See Gissendaner v. State, 272 Ga. 704 (12) (532 SE2d 677) (2000) (although evidentiary rules are relaxed in the penalty phase, the trial court may exclude evidence that is unreliable).

[A]ll the test results were not completely given until actually during the actual testimony of [Dr. Stark] on the stand while this jury was out, because the State didn't even have all - I think the social tests, the State had not been given and there was, in all this confusion about well, we kind of thought we had given it to you. I don't really think that's the way they contemplated that the statutes were meant to be; that we do this haphazard kind of slap-dash method during the actual trial of the case."

Riley claimed that evidence seized from his destroyed mobile home pursuant to search warrants executed weeks after the fire should have been suppressed. The trial court determined that no search warrants were needed because Riley did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his destroyed rental trailer. See Pervis v. State, 181 Ga. App. 613 (1) (353 SE2d 200) (1987). The United States Supreme Court has addressed the extent of a defendant's privacy interest in fire-damaged property: Privacy expectations will vary with the type of property, the amount of fire damage, the prior and continued use of the premises, and in some cases the owner's efforts to secure it against intruders. Some fires may be so devastating that no reasonable privacy interests remain in the ash and ruins, regardless of the owner's subjective expectations. The test essentially is an objective one: whether "the expectation [is] one that society is prepared to recognize as 'reasonable.' " Pervis, supra, quoting Michigan v. Clifford, 464 U.S. 287, 292 (III) (A) (104 S. Ct. 641, 78 L. Ed. 2d 477) (1984). In Pervis, supra, the Court of Appeals found that no reasonable privacy interest remained in a burnt house where only a chimney continued standing, no personal belongings remained in the destroyed structure, and the owner made no attempt to secure the ruins. The items seized during the search "were simply exhumed from an openly visible pile of ashes and rubble." Pervis, supra at 614. In this case, photographs show that Riley's trailer home was completely destroyed. Most of the roof and walls were collapsed or burnt away. None of Riley's possessions remained in the trailer and he told the police on August 16 that all he had left was his car and the clothes on his back. Riley made no attempt to secure the premises. The trial court did not err by finding that Riley no longer had a privacy interest in the mobile home. See Id. Compare Carr v. State, 267 Ga. 701 (7) (482 SE2d 314) (1997) (Carr's house not destroyed and he had taken measures to secure it). Additionally, the search warrants were valid and supported by probable cause. See Coleman v. State, 271 Ga. 800 (4) (523 SE2d 852) (1999). Lastly, the cigarette lighter Riley complains was improperly admitted into evidence was not found pursuant to the warrants; it was found on the day of the fire outside the trailer lying on the ground. This complaint was without merit.

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), (e-mail), Follow us on Twitter at @firesandrain.

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