Miranda Ruling Has Withstood 20 Years Of Criticism

Posted: June 08, 1986

PHOENIX, Ariz. — In the dim light of La Amapola bar, a squat warehouse of a building in a seedy neighborhood called the Deuce, Ernest Miranda died 10 years ago at the end of a knife.

Police Sgt. Wayne Corcoran remembers thinking, "Ernie's finally outsmarted himself." Says Corcoran: "He lived like a bum. He died like a bum."

A thousand miles away, a woman cut out a newspaper story about Miranda's death and mailed it to her son, a law professor who calls his mother a barometer of American public opinion.

"Isn't it a shame, after all he did for us," she wrote.

The truth is Ernesto Arturo Miranda - he often called himself Ernest - never amounted to much. But his name is one of the most renowned in American law because one of his many run-ins with the law went, as the saying goes, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation's highest court on June 13, 1966, announced its decision in Miranda vs. Arizona and changed the nature of criminal investigations in this country.

Police were told that before interrogating suspects in custody they must tell them they have a right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them, that they are entitled to a lawyer and that a lawyer will be appointed for them if they cannot afford one: the Miranda warnings.


Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d calls Miranda "an infamous decision." His aides say they are seeking an opportunity to have the Supreme Court wipe out its 20-year-old ruling.

One of the decision's most vigorous critics, criminal law expert Fred E. Inbau, calls it "a horrible mistake, just a great big mistake."

John P. Frank, a constitutional scholar who helped take Miranda's case to the Supreme Court, says he is proud of his role. "Miranda was a capstone to a vast cross-cultural pressure that led to law enforcement in this country becoming more civilized," he says.

Ernest Miranda, at age 23, was accused in 1963 of the rape of a young woman abducted from a Phoenix street.

In the book, Miranda: Crime, Laws and Politics, Liva Baker relates that Miranda was first arrested in 1954 for car theft. He was in the eighth grade. The next year, at age 15, he was arrested on a charge of attempted rape.

Miranda joined the Army in 1958 but was given an undesirable discharge a year later.

Phoenix police detectives Carroll Cooley and Wilfred Young investigated the 1963 rape case and arrested Miranda. He confessed, but later said he had been badgered into it.

Cooley, who rose to the rank of police captain before retiring, remembers Miranda as a "clean-cut looking, articulate guy who certainly did not look like a heinous rapist."

Asked by Cooley, Miranda agreed to stand in an identification lineup. Two witnesses identified him but were not certain. Afterward, Cooley remembers Miranda asking, "How did I do?"

"You didn't do very well," Cooley says he replied. Miranda then confessed. He had not been told about his right to keep quiet. Nothing had been said about getting a lawyer.

Tried, convicted and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in state prison, Miranda appealed. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled against him in 1965. Miranda's court-appointed lawyer could not afford to do any more without compensation. It appeared the case would end there.

Robert J. Corcoran, a 31-year-old lawyer and then the unpaid general counsel for the Arizona Civil Liberties Union in Phoenix, read the state Supreme Court decision in Miranda's case shortly after it was published. He remembers thinking the appeal presented "a potent point."

Now a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, Corcoran wrote to Miranda at the state prison in Florence, Ariz., and told him he had lined up a lawyer to continue the legal fight. Miranda agreed to the free representation.

Corcoran had solicited the services of John J. Flynn, one of the ablest trial lawyers in Phoenix. Flynn, in turn, recruited one of his law partners, John Frank, to prepare the appeal.

"We were pretty confident," Frank says. He and Flynn, who died six years ago, agreed with Corcoran that a 1964 Supreme Court decision in a case called Escobedo vs. Illinois pointed to a victory.

In Escobedo, the court ruled that a criminal suspect had the right to a lawyer's help when questioned by police if he already had become the target of police suspicions. But Escobedo, unlike Miranda, had asked for a lawyer and was denied such help.

Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court that studied Miranda's appeal had been steadily expanding individual rights. The Miranda decision, written by Warren, became a hallmark of that work.

Warren's opinion spent just two paragraphs discussing the particulars of Miranda's case. It was only one of four cases used to help decide the issue. But the others - from New York, California and Missouri - received higher Supreme Court docket numbers, and decisions are remembered by the case with the lowest number.

Cooley, the retired Phoenix officer, remembers being surprised by the ruling. "I was not pleased and I'm still not," he says. "The Supreme Court in my opinion acted on assumptions."

Frank, one of Miranda's attorneys, at first underestimated the decision's effects. Now he thinks it ranks as one of history's most important. "The great contribution of the Miranda decision has been to force a shift in police culture. The sociology of law enforcement has changed," he says.

Judge Robert Corcoran remembers thinking, "Now, the right to counsel is meaningful."

The decision provided the climax, not the conclusion, to Miranda's link to the law.

Prosecutors, now barred from using his confession in a new trial, initially considered dropping the rape charge. But Robert Corbin, then Maricopa County's chief prosecutor and now Arizona's attorney general, had another idea.

Together with Cooley, Corbin visited a woman who used to live with Miranda. Twila Hoffman said Miranda had talked to her about the rape. "Our jaws just dropped," Corbin says. "We had another confession."

With Hoffman as the state's star witness, Miranda was convicted again and sentenced to the same 20-to-30-year term, with credit for time served.

In all, Miranda spent 11 years behind bars for the 1963 crime. Released

from the prison at Florence, he returned to Phoenix, where, Cooley says, he ''associated with undesirables" and became a local character.

Police Sgt. Corcoran, a rookie when Miranda's first conviction was overturned in 1966, remembers numerous encounters with the man after his release from prison. "He was just another alcoholic Deuce bum whose one big stake in life was the Supreme Court case," Corcoran says.

"He'd get Miranda cards from us, autograph them and sell them for $1 or anything he could get," Corcoran says, referring to the two-by-four cards with the required Miranda warnings carried by Phoenix police in their shirt pockets.

Miranda died of stab wounds suffered in a fight at La Amapola on Jan. 31, 1976. He was 34. His death remains an unsolved crime.

Police arrested a suspect that night, but after being read his rights he chose to remain silent and was released. Additional evidence against him subsequently came to light, and an arrest warrant was issued. The suspect's whereabouts remain unknown.

Charles Whitebread, the University of Southern California law professor who was told about Miranda's death in a note mailed by his mother, says the Miranda decision hasn't hurt police work. "Every empirical study of the decision's impact on confessions obtained by police shows that it has not been much; people told of their rights tend to waive them," he says.

Charles Sims, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, says Miranda has led to "a lessening of the more outrageous conduct courts used to be repeatedly faced with. It has saved the courts an enormous amount of time in determining whether the waiver of rights was voluntary in any particular case."

Sims says he believes the Miranda guidelines "have helped lead police to a substantial upgrading in the professionalism of police."

Even the attorneys general of 14 states told the Supreme Court that ''throughout the years, the prophylactic rules of Miranda have worked well."

"Miranda has aided in the continuing pursuit of a lawful and just society," the chief law enforcement officers for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wyoming said in a recent legal brief asking the court not to expand Miranda unduly.

But Arizona Attorney General Corbin says he sees no merit in the ruling. ''I'm a prosecutor. I'd like to see it wiped off the books," he says. "As long as a confession is given without force, fears, threats or promises, it should be used at trial."

Phoenix Police Chief Reuben Ortega, who as a robbery detective 20 years ago was "shocked by the absurdity of the Miranda decision," says he thinks the ruling has hurt society more than helped it.

"We live with it, but Miranda and decisions like it require more time spent on each case. Some crimes go by the wayside," Ortega says.

But when asked whether Miranda has hurt law enforcement efforts, Arthur ''Cappy" Eads, district attorney in Bell County, Texas, and president of the National District Attorneys Association, says, "I don't honestly think so."

"I don't want to sound like some civil libertarian," Eads says, "but in the 17 years I've been a prosecutor, we've had very few cases fall through the cracks because of Miranda."

Eads and other prosecutors say they are concerned over what they call an overreaction to Miranda, expanding the ruling to areas it never was intended to reach.

Sgt. Corcoran says he has witnessed such overreaction. "We've had guys read the warnings as soon as they arrest someone even if they didn't want to question the suspect," Corcoran says. "That's so some lawyer doesn't turn to the jury and say, 'So, you didn't warn him of his rights."'

He says even suspects overreact. "These guys watch Hill Street Blues and think they're experts. They say, 'Hey, you didn't Mirandize me.' "

In large measure, efforts by law enforcement authorities to limit the practical effects of Miranda have met with success in a series of Supreme Court decisions since 1966.

A generally more conservative cast of justices has "curtailed and corralled Miranda, not really whittled away at its core holding," says Georgetown University law professor Edward T. McMahon.

Most experts say the current Supreme Court does not show much interest in overturning Miranda.

"I do not see any suggestion that Miranda would be overruled," says Justice William J. Brennan, the court's leading liberal and the only member of the Miranda majority still on the high court.

Former Justice Arthur Goldberg, author of the Escobedo decision in 1964, says the current court is "nibbling away at Miranda," but "their present decisions indicate that they will never reverse Miranda."

Whitebread thinks no court will want the responsibility of overturning Miranda.

"Too many Americans watch television," he says. "Everyone knows that when they get arrested they have some rights. They might not know what they are exactly, but they know they have them. This court, no court, wants to be known as the court that took away America's rights."

comments powered by Disqus