Reversed: Conviction of Aggravated Manslaughter After Defendant Confessed to Killing His Wife
Appellate Docket No.: A-15-21
Decided June 22, 2022
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent opinion, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed a jury conviction of aggravated manslaughter after defendant confessed to killing his wife.
In State v. Rivas, at 10:00 a.m. on February 24, 2014, Rivas went to the Elizabeth Police Department and reported that his wife Karla Villagra Garzon was missing — that she never returned from a trip to the pharmacy the previous evening. Over the next several days, Rivas gave statements to the police to assist in the missing-persons investigation. Rivas provided conflicting stories.
After a suicide attempt, detectives began a question and answer session at the hospital for approximately six hours. The detectives had Rivas read aloud each of his Miranda rights and then asked him if he understood those rights. He answered in the affirmative but repeatedly queried the detectives about his right to an attorney. He began by stating, “Ah a lawyer, I need time to find a lawyer. I need to see how much they charge.” Over the next thirty minutes, the detectives engaged Rivas in casual conversation. Afterwards, Rivas raised the subject of getting a lawyer again, asking “Do you think that I need a lawyer? Because how you say innocent?” The detectives told Rivas that he had to decide that issue for himself. Rivas stated, “In the beginning, I say I don’t want a lawyer, and then I want a lawyer so.” Rivas later asked the detectives “if you know some lawyer.”
The trial court ultimately found that Rivas’s statements about his desire to secure counsel were “objectively unclear and ambiguous,” and therefore the detectives had the duty either to clarify the ambiguity or cease questioning. The detectives, however, did not attempt any further clarification. No one contests in this appeal that the questioning of Rivas should have stopped at this point. But the interrogation continued for roughly another five hours.
During the continued interrogation, Rivas ultimately confessed to killing Karla, admitting that he punched her and struck her over the head with a meat tenderizer. He stated that he stuffed her body into a suitcase and drove to a vacant home, where he abandoned Karla’s body. The interrogation continued until the detectives prepared to leave to look for Karla’s body, at which point Rivas repeatedly said that he wanted to speak with the three detectives the next day. Rivas also asked about his cell phone and noted that he was not sure what was going on with the funeral.
The next day, March 19, Rivas was discharged from the hospital and transported by police officers to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, where he gave a videotaped statement. Rivas was read his Miranda rights and informed that his family was prepared to retain an attorney to represent him. Despite that information, Rivas waived his rights and indicated his willingness to speak with the detectives. Rivas then essentially repeated the confession he gave the previous day with added details. Rivas also gave a second statement acknowledging that he, that day, had voluntarily assisted detectives in locating evidence of the crime.
The trial court and Appellate Division suppressed the statements from March 18 during the six hour hospital interrogation. However, they ruled that the March 19 statements were a voluntary waiver and the statements were admitted.
The Supreme Court reviewed the matter and overturned both the trial court and the Appellate Division, finding that there was a violation of the right to invoke counsel causing an unlawful interrogation and tainted confession that was mirrored that day after and, therefore, the day after confession cannot be viewed and a free a voluntary waiver of his right to an attorney. The Supreme Court found that because the confession severely prejudiced Rivas, they vacated the conviction and remanded for a new trial.
This case is important to understand your rights when being questioned by police. You have the right to remain silent and your choice to remain silent cannot be used against you at trial. You have a right to an attorney. If the request is made during interrogation, the questioning must cease immediately. Any information sought after the request is made may be suppressed, as the case here.
If you or someone you know have been charged with any indictable offense or disorderly persons involving a search and/or questioning of police, contact the experienced attorney at Hark & Hark to ensure you are adequately defended, otherwise you could have negative impacts on your case like the defendant above.
At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court for criminal matters like the present case. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.
We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing criminal charges similar to this circumstance, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Bass River, Beverly, Bordentown City, Bordentown Township, Burlington City, Burlington Township, Chesterfield, Cinnaminson, Delanco, Delran, Eastampton, Edgewater Park, Evesham, Fieldsboro, Florence, Hainesport, Lumberton, Mansfield, Maple Shade, Medford Lakes, Medford Township, Moorestown, Mount Holly, Mount Laurel, New Hanover, North Hanover, Palmyra, Pemberton Borough, Pemberton Township, Riverside, Riverton, Shamong, Southampton, Springfield, Tabernacle, Washington Township, Westampton, Willingboro, Woodland Township, and Wrightstown.