People For the American Way

Trump Judge Affirms Denial of Post-Conviction Relief Even Though Police Violated Suspect’s Right Against Self-Incrimination: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

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Trump Judge Affirms Denial of Post-Conviction Relief Even Though Police Violated Suspect’s Right Against Self-Incrimination:  Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump Sixth Circuit judge John Bush wrote a decision affirming the denial of post-conviction relief to a man whose right against self-incrimination, the government conceded, was violated by police. The August 2020 case is Cooper v. Chapman.

Almost thirty years after an apparent murder in 1978, a witness came forward linking Wilbern Woodrow Cooper with the crime, claiming that Cooper told him at the time that he was involved with the killing. Police proceeded to question Cooper five times between 2006 and 2010, three times in custody, and then charged him in 2010 with felony murder. During the last interrogation, after Cooper told the police “I’m not saying no more” for the third time, police nonetheless continued the questioning and Cooper admitted that he and another individual had in fact entered the home where the victim was staying, and he helped the other person to tie up the victim, who was shot by the other individual. Although Cooper argued that his statements at the last interrogation session should be suppressed because police continued to question him after he told them to stop, in violation of his right against self-incrimination, the evidence was admitted and Cooper was convicted in state court of felony murder. A state appeals court upheld the conviction and Cooper sought post-conviction habeas corpus relief in federal court, which was denied by a district court. Cooper appealed.

In a 2-1 opinion by Trump judge John Bush, the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Bush acknowledged that the government had admitted that Cooper had “clearly and unequivocally” invoked his constitutional right to remain silent during the last interrogation, so that the state court unquestionably “committed error” in admitting the statements discussed above. Bush ruled, however, that Cooper had failed to meet the requirement that he show that the admission of his statements had a “substantial and injuries effect or influence” on the jury’s verdict against him. According to Bush, the jury could have “reasonably relied” on the testimony of the witness who first linked Cooper with the crime, Cooper’s statements during earlier questioning by police, and “suspicious actions” during his first custodial interrogation, when he “appeared evasive” when asked whether he had killed someone. Bush concluded that this evidence created a “reasonable inference” that Cooper was guilty independent of his later statement, so that the admission of that statement was “harmless error.”

Judge Karen Nelson Moore strongly dissented. She criticized the majority for “conspicuously” failing to consider the nature and likely effect of Cooper’s improperly obtained confession compared to the “remaining, far from overwhelming, evidence” against him. There was absolutely no “direct or physical evidence” linking Cooper to the crime, not even DNA evidence. The testimony of the outside witness “presented significant credibility issues” that weakened the value of his testimony, Moore explained,  including that it was “thirty-years stale” and “late,” and was “given in exchange for the State’s assistance with previous drunk driving charges.” Cooper’s earlier statements to police, she went on, demonstrated only that he was “on the porch” outside the house when the killing occurred, which is insufficient under Michigan law. Cooper’s allegedly “suspicious” behavior during one of the interrogation sessions was “weak circumstantial evidence at best,” she continued, especially since it could just as easily have reflected “guilt of another crime or general apprehension of law enforcement.”

The record showed, Moore pointed out, that the prosecution knew that Cooper’s confession was “by far the best evidence” against him, as reflected by the fact that it barely mentioned the other evidence and “emphasized Cooper’s confession again and again in its closing argument.” It was clear, Moore concluded, that the admission of the illegal confession was not “harmless error,” but had a “substantial or injurious effect” on Cooper’s case, and post-conviction relief should have been granted.

As a result of Bush’s opinion, however, there will be no relief for Cooper and no accountability for the clear violation of his constitutional rights.