ATLANTA -- The Georgia Supreme Court heard a prosecutor and a defense attorney debate Tuesday whether it’s proper for police to tell a child-molestation suspect during an interrogation that he can “go home” or an illegal promise made to get a confession.
The case revolves around a confession by Harrison R. Brown, age 19 at the time he was accused of molesting a 4-year-old boy who was living in his family home. The little boy’s grandmother called the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department in April 2009 and accused Brown based on what the little boy had told her.
During questioning, Sgt. Don White told Brown, “What I can tell you is you’ll go home. When you leave here, no matter what you tell me or what you say....” And Detective John Bradley then finished White’s sentence by saying, “you’re going home. ... I’m not going to snatch you up, place you in handcuffs and drag you back there with everybody.”
About 15 minutes after the statement about going home, Brown began to confess.
Before Brown’s trial, the judge threw out the confession, but the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled it was allowable.
His attorney, Steve Sparger, told the seven high-court justices Tuesday that being told he could go home amounted to an implied promise, even if investigators attempted to protect themselves by saying his freedom depended on the courts.
“Then the officers, they used the magic words, ‘We can’t tell you what the judge will do, but -- wink, wink -- you’re going home, unless you killed someone.’ That’s the promise,” Sparger said.
Justice David Nahmias, a former federal prosecutor, said FBI investigators frequently tell suspects they’re free to leave after questioning even though they may be arrested later. Is that practice illegal under Georgia law, he asked.
Sparger agreed it was an interesting question but in Brown’s case, he was arrested after his confession and not permitted to leave.
Justice Robert Benham asked if investigators could have a stack of $100 bills next to them during an interview and whether that would constitute “the slightest hope of benefit” that state law says is an unlawful barrier to a free and voluntary confession.
Assistant District Attorney Brian Deal argued that Brown did not rely on a promise of freedom to confess. Instead, he was very eager to talk once investigators raised his concerns about the victim’s well-being. And Brown didn’t object to being arrested as a violation of the promised freedom, according to Deal.
“This statement to Mr. Brown was almost irrelevant, given the amount of time that elapsed before his confession,” he said.
The justices asked both attorneys several questions but offered few clues as to how they might rule. Typically, they hand down decisions in about four months.