Statements by Murder Defendant to Undercover Jailhouse Informant Can Be Admitted Even if an Attorney Was Requested

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Christopher Grimes was found guilty of the second-degree murder of Adrian Dawson in 2018 which took place after Grimes hit a parked car in the strip mall in which Dawson’s fiancée and child were sitting. The two men had an altercation that led to Dawson’s murder by gunshot when Grimes drove away in his gold Mercedes (Dawson had followed and Grimes shot and killed him.) Grimes was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He appealed his conviction because of a jailhouse conversation with an undercover informant. In Grimes v. Phillips, the Ninth Circuit set limits on how and when such conversations can be used as evidence.

Prior to his trial, Grimes had requested representation by an attorney during his interrogation by the police, but the police continued to question him after he consented to answer questions without a lawyer present. During his initial incarceration, he was placed in a jail cell with an undercover informant who was posing as a fellow inmate. Grimes did not admit his crime to the informant but did make several incriminating statements that were admitted into evidence by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen, over his objection.

Grimes used the statements as the basis of a petition to District Court Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald of the Central District of California according to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. That petition was denied when Fitzgerald found the statements to be harmless error. Coen’s ruling was affirmed. Grimes had argued that admission of the informant’s statements was a violation of his Miranda rights, but the District Court stated that the “policy underlying Miranda…is not implicated when a suspect makes statements to an individual they believe is a fellow inmate.” Grimes then appealed to the California Supreme Court, which denied his habeas petition without comment.

Grimes appealed once again to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a 3-0 panel unanimously upheld the denial of his habeas corpus petition that challenged his conviction on the basis of the admission of the informant’s testimony. The opinion was authored by Circuit Judge Gabriel P. Sanchez, with concurrences by Circuit Judges Ryan D. Nelson and Lawrence VanDyke.

A habeas corpus decision is a judicial determination of whether a state is validly detaining a prisoner.

The Ninth Circuit agreed that Grimes’ statements were admissible under Illinois v. Perkins, 496 U.S. 292 (1990), which held that police are not required to give Miranda warnings to a suspect before they put him in a jail cell with an undercover informant. Sanchez explained that the U.S. Supreme Court never specifically addressed the issue, thus the Ninth Circuit affirmed Fitzgerald’s decision because it was “not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law as defined by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.” (AEDPA)

The AEDPA, aimed at deterring terrorism, also set several limits on habeas corpus claims, that would no longer be valid if “contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States…” The Ninth Circuit found that “The relevant inquiry under AEDPA is not whether the state court’s determination was erroneous,” as Grimes argued, “but rather whether it was objectively unreasonable,” (because of a) “substantially higher threshold.”

Sanchez also explained that a section of the AEDPA says that a habeas petition of a defendant who was incarcerated after judgment by a state court “shall not be granted unless… (it) resulted in a decision that was contrary to clearly established federal law…or resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”

The opinion stated that Grimes’ habeas petition was based on Miranda’s “constitutional safeguards” to “preserve the privilege against self-incrimination.” Sanchez wrote that, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois v Perkins, “Miranda forbids coercion, not mere strategic deception by taking advantage of a suspect’s misplaced trust in one he supposes to be a fellow prisoner.”

In addition, Sanchez provided several additional facts that led to the Circuit Court’s decision. First, Dawson’s fiancée, Marrisha Robinson, identified Grimes in a photographic lineup. In addition, bullet casings and ammunition matched Grimes’ gun, and several text messages to friends alluded to his crime. Grimes did not confess to the shooting but told the informant from which window the shot originated and gave him the timeline between the strip mall altercation and the shooting. Together, these additions amounted to the informant’s statements being classified as harmless error.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that neither the California Court of Appeals nor the trial court erred when they denied Grimes’ petitions according to federal law as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The district court’s rulings on the denial of his habeas corpus petitions were affirmed.

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
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