The tale behind cops' most famous words

The words are almost as familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord's Prayer. They begin invariably: "You have the right to remain silent...."

Now, after 34 years as US law, the so-called Miranda rights - uttered by crimefighters hundreds of times a day - could be struck down before summer by the US Supreme Court.

If that happens - and legal experts say it well could - the rules governing how police interrogate suspects would revert to the pre-1966 standard. Some believe it would free police from a heavy legal yoke that limits their ability to get confessions. Others worry it would dismantle a fire wall of constitutional protections for people in custody.

True, few cases get thrown out on Miranda violations. And suspects do still confess, though some prosecutors argue that a particular Miranda provision - the one that requires questioning to end the moment a suspect asks for a lawyer - has had a chilling effect.

Even here in Phoenix - where the seemingly ordinary case of one Ernesto Arturo Miranda took its first history-making steps - people today are split over the need for the Miranda rule. They are divided, too, over what would happen if it is overturned.

Larry Debus, a former Phoenix police detective who was one of the people to question young Miranda that fateful March day in 1963, is one who says the case changed the balance of power between police and suspects for the better.

"To be real honest with you, the cops had known all along that the things they were doing were wrong," he says, thinking back. "It was just a matter of getting away with it."

Gary Nelson, who stood before the nation's highest court and argued that Arizona did not trample Miranda's constitutional rights in obtaining a confession, sees it differently. He believes Miranda, who'd had plenty of run-ins with the law, was well aware of his right not to incriminate himself and his right to a lawyer.

So are "the vast majority of people," Mr. Nelson says. Overturning a criminal conviction because of a Miranda-rule violation "should be decided on a case-by-case basis," he adds.

And so, in the retelling, the tale of Ernesto Miranda serves as a mirror on the past - and possibly America's future. The court takes up the case next Wednesday.

The Miranda case was born in a dungeonlike interrogation room in the basement of the Phoenix Police Department.

Ernesto Miranda, a high school dropout and ex-convict, was under arrest for the rape of a teenage girl a week earlier. She'd spotted his 1953 Packard, and identified the car as belonging to the man who, after picking her up, drove out to the desert and raped her. He left her with the words: "Pray for me."

Now, as the day began on March 2, 1963, officers were taking turns grilling the young Mexican-American. Their quest: a confession.

Mr. Debus, now a prominent Phoenix defense lawyer, was one of the detectives in the station that night. He doesn't remember much about the suspect. "He was a little Mexican kid. In those days, that's what he was. He was a nobody." Debus does remember, however, that his colleagues tried every trick in the book, from the "good cop, bad cop" routine to threatening to throw the book at him.

"My recollection is that several of us had a run at him," he says. "We did anything we could to get him to confess and, after a while, he did. Persistence pays off, I guess."

Miranda finally signed a written confession. During the trial, police acknowledged they did not advise him of his right to a lawyer or remind him he did not have to answer police questions.

Years later, Miranda would say of that day: "I haven't had any sleep since the day before. I'm tired. I just got off work, and they have me and they are interrogating me. They mention first one crime, then another one, they are certain I am the person."

Ernesto was convicted and sentenced to prison for 20 to 30 years. No one thought much of it after that, says David Miranda, Ernesto's closest nephew, who was a boy at the time. "We thought that was the end of the case."

The way we were

The fact was Ernesto's interrogation was not atypical - especially for a "little Mexican kid." Phoenix, like most American cities, was still segregated in the early 1960s. For the most part, Hispanics lived south of Thomas Road and whites lived north.

"My dad tells me Mexicans couldn't swim in certain places, couldn't go to certain dances, couldn't date certain girls," says Dave Miranda.

Ernesto, the fifth son of an immigrant housepainter from Sonora, Mexico, had been in and out of juvenile facilities from a young age. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and later followed his older brothers into the US Army. By the time he moved back to his hometown of Mesa, Ariz., he'd been dishonorably discharged for going AWOL and had served a year in federal prison for stealing a car.

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.

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

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