THE Supreme Court this week reasserted the importance of reading suspects their rights before obtaining confessions.
The Wednesday decision in a double-murder case was a step back toward the middle ground by a court that had sharply curtailed the rights of accused criminals during the last two decades. It follows a strongly worded decision last year that federal officials had illegally entrapped a Nebraska man when they lured him into ordering child pornography in the mail.
The case decided Wednesday - which reaffirms the right of federal judges to review state court rulings in cases involving suspects' rights - was one of the most closely watched cases of the court session. If the 5-4 decision had gone the other way, it would have substantially withdrawn the federal courts from protecting the constitutional bar against coerced confessions.
"There are signs over the last two years that the court has, if not moved back, at least stopped the swing to the right" on criminal law, says law Prof. Paul Marcus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
"It moves the marker back a bit on Miranda," says William Greenhalgh, a Georgetown University law professor. Miranda v. Arizona was the famous 1966 Supreme Court decision which held that police must read criminal suspects their constitutional rights as they are being arrested.
The case decided Wednesday began in 1985 when Romulus, Mich., police picked up Robert Allen Stevens for questioning in the murder of two people.
At first, Mr. Williams denied any involvement. But gradually he began to incriminate himself. The officers continued the questioning, telling him to tell the truth or "we're simply gonna charge you and lock you up."
The officers only read Williams his Miranda rights 40 minutes into the interrogation. After he waived his rights, the questioning continued.
At the state trial, the judge allowed all the interrogation into evidence and Williams was given a life sentence for each murder. On appeal, higher courts ruled that Williams' confession was coerced.
The specific question to reach the Supreme Court was whether, after a "full and fair" review of Miranda questions in the state courts, the federal courts should also be available for appeals. The Supreme Court ruled that they should.
Justice David Souter wrote the opinion for the majority, which included Justices John Paul Stevens, Harry Blackmun, Anthony Kennedy, and Byron White. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is a strong advocate for the authority of state courts, dissented in this case, along with conservative Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and William Rehnquist.