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The tale behind cops' most famous words

(Page 2 of 2)

So when Ernesto was arrested for rape, he was no stranger to the criminal-justice system. Then again, the system didn't treat him as it would a suspect who was white, middle-class, and lived on the right side of Thomas Road.

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Recalling the police department of the 1960s, Debus acknowledges prejudice in handling Ernesto. "Up north, it was kid gloves. Down south, it was rough and tumble," he says. "When you put a guy in the car up north, you put your hand on his head so he didn't bump it and you'd gently put his leg in. Down south you'd say, 'Get in the ... car!' and if his leg was hanging out, you'd slam the door on it. That's the way it was."

Ernesto's court-appointed lawyer thought race would be a problem at trial. "She, the victim, was a beautiful girl ... the kind of girl a man would want his own son to marry. But she was white.... It was one of those things you couldn't get away from in Arizona," the lawyer would tell a local newspaper.

But police conduct, not race, was at the heart of Ernesto's appeal - a case led by John Flynn, a famous trial lawyer from Phoenix. At the time, neither man could have guessed the case would have the effect it did.

"He just wanted out of prison," says Dave Miranda of his uncle. "I don't think anyone thought he would change things the way he did, least of all Ernie."

A surprise landmark

The Miranda case would become the Warren court's high-water mark in protecting the rights of the accused. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the tribunal had been whittling at police power, with an eye to righting perceived inequalities in the justice system.

Even before the Miranda decision in 1966, many in law enforcement knew things were changing, fast. The high court in 1963 established the right of counsel for all criminal defendants, and it built on that ruling a year later by affirming a suspect's right to have a lawyer present during a police interrogation.

"We were aware that our actions were being held under a microscope," recalls Debus, the former detective. "I remember being told in the academy that the law was changing and to be careful. But of course once you were on the street, it was a different story."

Even so, few were prepared for the sweeping protections laid out in Miranda. The chief justice himself wrote the 5-to-4 majority opinion. In it, he challenged police manuals of the day that instructed interrogators to "dominate the subject and overwhelm him," "interrogate steadily and without relent," sometimes for days, and even "induce a confession by trickery."

A nephew's memories

It seems ironic, after his uncle's unhappy experiences with the Phoenix police, that Ernesto's nephew became a detective with the department. Dave recites the Miranda warning every day, but to him, the words mean much more. "It's an odd feeling reading someone their Miranda rights," says the 19-year veteran, twitching his burly salt-and-pepper mustache. "Every time I do, I think of him."

One thing Dave Miranda thinks about occurred during his tour of duty with the US Army, while stationed in Germany. A soldier carrying a copy of Stars and Stripes walked by, and the headline caught his eye - "Miranda of landmark decision killed."

"I felt sick," he says. "We had been waiting all those years for him to get out. He finally did - and never had a chance."

After the high court's ruling, Ernesto was retried - this time without his confession - and again found guilty. Paroled in 1973, Ernesto went to live with his brother, Ruben. But it was hard for this shy, quiet man, says Dave Miranda. "Here was this ex-con named Miranda trying to get a job. You can't slide that name by an employer. You can't slide that name by anybody. It drew a lot of attention to him that he did not want."

Ernesto profited only slightly from his celebrity. He was known to carry autographed Miranda cards, selling them for a dollar or two on the streets of Phoenix. Before too long, he was picked up on a parol violation, and sent back to prison.

Then, in 1976, freed and living again with his brother, a misunderstanding caused him to forgo a family wedding and, instead, head to La Amapola Bar downtown. A poker game became a fistfight, and after Ernesto emerged from washing the blood from his hands, he was stabbed with a hooked lettuce knife.

The killer has never been found. An accomplice, however, was caught that night. Before taking him to headquarters, a Phoenix cop pulled out a 2-1/2- by 3-1/2-inch card and began to read: "You have the right to remain silent...."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society