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Judge: Jury can hear man’s statements to jail officers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, at 7:32 p.m.

A jury will be allowed to hear statements made by a man who walked into the Sedgwick County Jail and asked for a lawyer before telling law enforcement officers that he killed his wife, a judge ruled Monday.

Although a defense lawyer described the actions of law enforcement officers as an “Arizona two-step,” District Judge Joe Kisner ruled that the officers did not violate Guy Palmer’s rights by not reading him his Miranda warning after he told them he killed Debra Palmer.

Palmer, 56, is scheduled to stand trial this week for first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Debra Palmer, 61, in the couple’s home at 6800 E. Farmview in northeast Wichita.

Kisner, who will preside at the trial, said there are appellate court rulings that address how police should deal with a person who walks into a police station and confesses to a crime that police know about. But he said he could find no appellate cases involving a person who confesses to a crime that police don’t know about.

Testimony at a pre-trial suppression hearing showed that officers thought Palmer was a homeless person with mental illness when he walked into the jail on the morning of Dec. 16 and demanded to be arrested, asking for a lawyer and psychiatrist. Officers said they were trying to determine why he wanted to be arrested when Palmer said he killed his wife.

Quentin Pittman, who is representing Palmer, argued during the hearing that officers at the jail never issued a Miranda warning to Palmer and continued questioning him despite his repeated requests for a lawyer.

Among those testifying at the hearing was Wichita police Officer Juan Atondo, who said he was skeptical when he arrived at the jail and took Palmer’s statement in a secure seating area just inside the entrance of the jail.

“He was upset and demanded to be placed in handcuffs,” he said. “He wanted his Miranda warning read to him. He wanted a lawyer. ... He wanted to be in handcuffs so I placed him in handcuffs, and that seemed to calm him down.”

“Why not Mirandize him?” Pittman asked.

“I didn’t know that a crime had occurred,” Atondo said.

Atondo also said it wasn’t his place to issue a Miranda warning in a homicide case. Pittman suggested it was a police policy.

“I’m not sure if it’s a policy,” Atondo said. “I just know that detectives don’t like officers to read Miranda warnings to homicide suspects,”

Atondo said that in domestic violence cases, where he investigates without the help of detectives, he often reads Miranda rights to suspects.

“It is incredible that if you sock a neighbor, and the cops roll out, you get Miranda,” Pittman later argued. “But if you kill someone, they’re going to let you talk.

“That’s why we have Miranda safeguards – to prevent police from doing this. This was the Arizona two-step. This is an effort by law enforcement to walk right up to the line and straddle it. They like to get as much incriminating evidence as possible before the homicide detectives are rolled out.”

Pittman’s reference was to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona, which ensures a defendant’s right to a lawyer before being questioned by police.

Prosecutor Mandee Schauf argued at the close of the hearing that none of the officers in the jail was questioning Palmer as a criminal suspect.

“They didn’t know that a crime had occurred, so how could they question him as a suspect?” she asked. “How can you question someone as a suspect when you don’t have a crime?”

In issuing his ruling, Kisner said Palmer’s initial statements were admissible because they were offered voluntarily when he was not in custody. Even the statements made after he was handcuffed are admissible, Kisner ruled, because officers were trying to determine whether Debra Palmer was in fact dead or perhaps severely injured and in need of medical attention.

Jury selection in Palmer’s trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @hlaviana.

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