The following is a guest post by Alexander Salopek, a collection development specialist in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress. He previously wrote posts on Theodore Roosevelt and Marriage Equality in the U.S.
I wanted to learn more about the person whose case defined one particular aspect of the U.S. criminal justice system. Ernesto Miranda was an unlikely person to be immortalized in American popular culture, but when he was taken in for questioning by police, the particular facts of his case pointed to an abuse of power, which the Supreme Court at the time felt it should remedy. He ultimately made a confession, which led to his conviction. His case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court – where it changed police interrogations and the law of confessions.
In late 1962 and early 1963, there were a series of violent assaults on young women in Phoenix, Arizona. The cases would likely have never been solved if it wasn’t for the specific car used in one of the assaults, a 1953 Packard sedan. It was randomly seen by one of the victim’s cousins, who had started escorting their cousin after the assault. (Stuart, 5). Subsequent police investigations, including reconnecting with the detective in charge, visiting a car dealership, and having a registration search done, led to Ernesto Miranda, who was living with a woman who owned that make and model of car (Stuart, 5-6). Miranda was cooperative with police and denied that he had anything to do with the assaults. He volunteered to go to the police station for questioning and to participate in a lineup (Stuart, 6). Once there, he should have been informed that he could be appointed an attorney, and that anything he said could be used against him in court. The victims thought that Miranda could have been the assailant, but neither was sure; if Miranda had an attorney he would likely have been let go. Unfortunately for Miranda, he believed that the victims recognized him fully and he made full confessions to the crimes (Stuart, 6-7). These confessions were used against him at his trial, where he was found guilty by a jury.
When the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the conviction on Miranda’s case, they found a decision by the US Supreme Court rendered shortly before Miranda’s case, in the matter of Escobedo v. Illinois that determined that suspects had a right to counsel during police questioning. Many disagreed with the Arizona Supreme Court including John P. Frank, a former Justice Black clerk who wrote the Miranda Brief for the U S. Supreme Court, and John J. Flynn, a criminal defense attorney who argued the case in front of the U S. Supreme Court (Stuart, 53). The Supreme Court held that Miranda was not explicitly given a set of warnings before making his confession, in violation of the Fifth and the Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These warnings became known as Miranda warnings. Accordingly, “a defendant cannot be questioned by police in the context of a custodial interrogation until the defendant is made aware of the right to remain silent, the right to consult with an attorney and have the attorney present during questioning, and the right to have an attorney appointed if indigent.”
This meant to take a suspect into custody the officer would need to explicitly state their rights, or Mirandize them (Stuart, 80). Chief Justice Warren hoped that this would provide more knowledge to suspects and create a more just criminal justice system (Powe, 397-398).
Following the Supreme Court decision, one of Miranda’s cases was reversed and remanded to the lower court for retrial and his other conviction was also allowed to have a retrial through his new defense attorney’s work (Stuart, 92). Miranda was retried and found guilty in both cases. He was imprisoned at Arizona State Penitentiary, and once released from prison sold autographed “Miranda” warning cards in downtown Phoenix. He was stabbed to death in a bar fight about a month after he was released. As for the Miranda warning, it has become so popular in the American imagination (likely due to detective procedural TV shows, films, and books), that many can recite it from memory – something that Chief Justice Warren may have hoped for the future when making his decision.
We’ve had a few other In Custodia Legis posts about Miranda warnings, including equivalents in other countries: You Have the Right to Remain Silent; Miranda Rights and National Police Week; 2016 Law Day Program 50th Anniversary of Miranda v. Arizona; Law Library Event– the Depiction of Law in Film and Television; Human Rights and the Miranda Warning in Eastern Europe.
Cox, Archibald. (1968) The Warren Court: Constitutional Decision as an Instrument of Reform.
Powe, Jr., Lucas A. (2000) The Warren Court and American Politics.
Sayler, Richard H., Boyer, Barry B., & Gooding, Jr., Robert E. (1968) The Warren Court: a Critical Analysis.
Stone, Geoffrey R. & Strauss, David A. (2020) Democracy and Equality: the Enduring Constitutional Vision of the Warren Court. Oxford University Press
Stuart, Gary L. (2004) Miranda: the Story of America’s Right to Remain Silent.