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Michigan Supreme Court upholds throwing out Wixom murder suspect's statements

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Supreme Court declined Friday in a close vote to hear an appeal from prosecutors whose key testimony was thrown out because police neglected to specifically inform the suspect of her right to the presence of an attorney during questioning.

The seven justices disagreed about whether the high court could should consider arguments that police had properly respected a suspect's Miranda rights by giving her a general advisory about having the "right to a lawyer" during questioning.

The decision "really has no significance" since the Supreme Court can decline to hear a case for a variety of reasons without really opining on the arguments, said Justin Long, associate professor at Wayne State University Law School.

"The police will have to follow the Court of Appeals decision if they want evidence to stick," Long said. "That is precedential and binding on all courts until another case comes up and the Supreme Court says the Court of Appeals was wrong.”

Across the country, courts have split on whether a police officer must indicate suspects have a right to a lawyer during interrogation, with some arguing that a suspect's natural implication is to understand that right to be reserved for trial, said Eve Primus, Yale Kamisar collegiate professor of law at the University of Michigan.  

"There were some who thought the Michigan Supreme Court might take the case because this is an area of contention," Primus said. "But clearly they thought this wasn’t something where they had enough votes to disagree with the Court of Appeals or not worth the limited time they have on their docket."

The 4-3 decision to deny prosecution's request for an appeal hearing left in place a lower court ruling in the case of Laricca Mathews, a Wixom woman charged with the murder of her boyfriend, Gabriel Dumas. 

State of Michigan Supreme Court seal in The Hall of Justice in Lansing.

Mathews called 911 in 2016 shortly after she shot Dumas to report the shooting. She was taken into custody, where she had two videotaped interview with police. 

Before the interviews began, Mathews was given a document informing her of her rights. In both interviews, Mathews was told she had a "right to a lawyer" but was not told specifically that the lawyer could be present during the interrogation. 

In the first interview, Mathews said she shot Dumas in self-defense. In the second interview, Mathews said she had shot Dumas face to face. When police told her Dumas was shot in the back of the head, she said the bullet may have ricocheted. 

Mathews eventually filed a motion to suppress her statements from the interviews, arguing she hadn't fully been informed of her right to have a lawyer present during questioning. 

The Oakland County trial court granted Mathews' appeal and the Court of Appeals later upheld that decision in a split vote. 

The Michigan Supreme Court left the Court of Appeals ruling in place 4-3 without a majority opinion by Democratic-nominated justices Bridget McCormack, Richard Bernstein and Megan Cavanagh as well as GOP-nominated Justice Beth Clement. 

In a dissenting opinion written by Justice David Viviano and joined by two other Republican-nominated justices, he argued that a suspect or defendant's rights don't require a detailed explanation of the primary right to remain silent, so it wouldn't require a detailed explanation about the subordinate right to an attorney.

Michigan Supreme Court  Justice David F. Viviano hears a case.

Further the U.S. Supreme Court already has clarified that further elaboration on the right to a lawyer is not needed, Viviano wrote.

"Nothing was said that could have misled a reasonable person as to the scope of that right or suggested that it applied only at certain stages of the interrogation or judicial process," Viviano wrote in an opinion joined by justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra. 

"Rather, a common-sense understanding of the warnings would lead one to believe that the right to an attorney could be invoked at any time."

The 4-3 decision marks the second time in less than a month that Clement joined Democratic-nominated justices in a decision. Earlier this month, Clement joined McCormack, Bernstein and Cavanagh in denying a request by the Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that sought early consideration of their litigation regarding the emergency powers of the governor. 

Clement was appointed to the Supreme Court by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2017 but faced backlash from the Michigan Republican Party in 2018 after saying she faced "bullying and intimidation" while deliberating a case that paved the way for a redistricting commission initiative to go on the November ballot. Voters approved the ballot measure.  

Clement's name did not appear on certain Republican Party election pamphlets later that year, and she was booed at the Republic nominating convention before winning the nomination.