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Miller v. Fenton

August 17, 1984


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Gibbons and Becker, Circuit Judges, and Atkins, District Judge*fn*

Author: Becker


BECKER, Circuit Judge

This is a habeas corpus case brought by Frank M. Miller, Jr., who was convicted in New Jersey state court of the murder of Deborah Margolin. In his habeas corpus petition, Miller alleges that his confession to the murder was involuntary, because the police detective's mode of questioning created psychological pressure that induced him to confess against his will. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the record supported the trial court's conclusion that Miller's confession was "voluntary," and thus admissible under the controlling precedents. We have carefully reviewed the record and conclude that the factual findings of the state court are supported by the record. We therefore conclude that we must accord these findings the presumption of correctness provided for in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). See Patterson v. Cuyler, 729 F.2d 925 (3d Cir. 1984). Given the findings and the presumption, we cannot say as a matter of law that the mode of interrogation used by the detective who questioned Miller rendered the confession involuntary, and accordingly we will affirm the judgment of the district court denying Miller's application for the writ of habeas corpus.


On August 13, 1973, at about 11:30 a.m., while Deborah Margolin was sunbathing on the porch of her home in rural East Amwell Township, a stranger approached in an automobile and informed her that he had seen a heifer loose at the bottom of the driveway. The stranger offered to help her retrieve the cow. Ms. Margolin declined the offer of help, and then proceeded alone in her brother's automobile to retrieve the heifer. Her brother found the automobile about half an hour later; the keys had been left in the ignition.

When Ms. Margolin failed to return by late afternoon, her family commenced searching for her. Her father eventually found her dead, face down in a creek, with her throat and breast cut. The New Jersey State Police were then called. A number of troopers and detectives arrived on the scene at about 7:30 P.M., and took a description of the car and the stranger from the victim's brothers, who had seen him drive up. Miller, who lived nearby and was known to the troopers, had been convicted in 1969 of carnal abuse and arrested in 1973 for statutory rape. One of the officers, Trooper Scott, recalled that Miller drove a car that matched the one described by the victim's brothers -- an old white car with the trunk tied shut and two dents in the side. Detective Boyce of the State Police confirmed the descriptions of the car and also concluded that the description of the stranger given by the victim's brothers matched Miller's general physical characteristics.

The police located Miller at his place of employment, P.F.D. Plastics in Trenton, at about 10:50 P.M. on the evening of the murder, and questioned him there. Miller agreed to accompany the officers to the police barracks for further questioning, and, without being searched, turned his penknife over to the officers. After spending about seventy-five minutes in the barracks kitchen with Trooper Scott, during which he was not questioned, Miller was taken into an interrogation room by Detective Boyce and read his Miranda rights. Miller signed the Miranda card, and specifically asked Boyce for a clarification of his right to terminate questioning, which Boyce gave him.*fn1

The state police made a tape recording of Miller's statement.*fn2 Boyce spoke in a soft and friendly -- even sympathetic -- voice. He thus presented himself as a "nice guy," friendly to the suspect and interested in solving his problems. In response to Boyce's questions, Miller first described his activities on the morning of August 13. Boyce then pointed out various discrepancies in Miller's story about how he passed the time during which the murder occurred, the similarity between the description of the car given by the victim's brothers and Miller's car, and other incriminating evidence. At that point, Miller weakened:

BOYCE: Now, what would your conclusion be under those circumstances, if someone told you that?

MILLER: I'd probably, uh, have the same conclusion you got.

BOYCE: Which is what?

MILLER: That I'm the guy that, that did this.

BOYCE: That did what?

MILLER: Committed this crime.

After this, Boyce shifted gears. Boyce stated that in his opinion, Miller wasn't a "criminal," and that he didn't have a "criminal mind." Rather, Boyce asserted that Miller had a "problem," for which he needed help, not punishment. Boyce then led Miller to talk about his need for help, the psychiatric treatment he received as a condition of his parole from a prior conviction, and his recent statutory rape arrest.

With this background out on the table, Boyce began appealing to Miller's conscience:

B. Okay, listen Frank, if I promise to, you know, do all I can with the psychiatrist and everything, and we get the proper help for you, and get the proper help for you, will you talk to me about it?

M. I can't talk to you about something I'm not . . .

B. Alright, listen Frank, alright, honest. I know, I know what's going on inside you, Frank. I want to help you, you know, between us right now. I know what [sic] going on inside you. Frank, you've got to come forward and tell me that you want to help yourself. You've got to talk to me about it. This is the only way we'll be able to work it out. I mean, you know, listen, I want to help you, because you are in my mind, you are not responsible. You are not responsible, Frank, Frank, Frank, what's the matter?

M. I feel bad.

B. Frank, listen to me, honest to God, I'm, I'm telling you, Frank, (inaudible). I know, it's going to bother you, Frank, it's going to bother you. It's there, it's not going to go away, it's there. It's right in front of you, Frank. Am I right or wrong?

M. Yeah.

Miller then began, step by step, to make damaging admissions concerning his participation in the murder. At first, he insisted that, although he was with the victim when she was killed, some unknown stranger had actually committed the crime while they were searching for the heifer. Miller insisted that he had tried to get help, but that, when he realized the victim was dead, he had panicked and dropped the body off. Boyce allowed this much to come out, but then challenged Miller, saying "you killed this girl, didn't you." Miller again denied having committed the crime, after which Boyce changed gears again, telling Miller -- again in soft, pleading tones -- that he could only be helped if he "told the truth" -- admitted the crime. The following exchange then took place.

B. Honest, Frank? It's got to come out. You can't leave it in. It's hard for you, I realize that, how hard it is, how difficult it is, I realize that, but you've got to help yourself before anybody else can help you. And we're going to see to it that you get the proper help. This is our job, Frank. This is our job. This is what I want to do.

M. By sending me back down there.

B. Wait a second now, don't talk about going back down there. First thing we have to do is let it all come out. Don't fight it because it's worse, Frank, it's worse. It's hurting me because I feel it. I feel it wanting to come out, but it's hurting me, Frank. You're my brother, I mean we're brothers. All men on this, all men on the face of this earth are brothers, Frank, but you got to be completely honest with me.

M. I'm trying to be, but you don't want to believe me.

B. I want to believe you, Frank, but I want you to tell me the truth, Frank, and you know what I'm talking about and I know what you're talking about. You've got to tell me the truth. I can't help you without the truth.

M. I'm telling you the truth. Sure, that's her blood in the car because when I seen the way she was cut I wanted to help her, and then when she fell over I got scared to even be involved in something like this, being on parole and . . .

B. I realize this, Frank, it may have been an accident. Isn't that possible, Frank? Isn't that possible?

M. Sure, it's possible.

B. Well, this is what I'm trying to bring out, Frank. It may be something that, that you did that you can't be held accountable for. This is, I can help you, I can help you once you tell me the truth. You know what I'm talking about. I want to help you, Frank. I like you. You've been honest with me. You've been sincere and I've been the same way with you. Now this is the kind of relationship we have, but I can't help you unless you tell me the complete truth. I'll listen to you. I understand, Frank. You have to believe that, I understand. I understand how you feel. I understand how much it must hurt you inside. I know how you feel because I feel it ptoo. Because some day I may be in the same situation Frank, but you've got to help yourself. Tell me exactly what happened, tell me the truth, Frank, please.

M. I'm trying to tell you the truth.

B. Let me help you. It could have been an accident. You, you've got to tell me the truth, Frank. You know what I'm talking about. I can't help you without the truth. Now you know and I know that's, that's, that's all that counts, Frank. You know and I know that's what counts, that's what it's all about. We can't hide it from each other because we both know, but you've got to be willing to help yourself. You know, I don't think you're a criminal. You have this problem like we talked about before, right?

M. Yeah, you, you say this now, but this thing goes to court and everything and you . . .

B. No, listen to me, Frank, please listen to me. The issue now is what happened. The issue now is truth. Truth is the issue now. You've got to believe this, and the truth prevails in the end, Frank. You have to believe that and I'm sincere when I'm saying it to you. You've got to be truthful with yourself.

Miller then began digressing, talking about how he was "framed" by a detective in connection with his prior conviction and put in prison, and how "this is going to kill my father." Boyce continued to redirect Miller toward the murder, and finally the confession came out. The entire interrogation lasted about fifty-eight minutes. There were no threats or explicit promises made, and no physical coercion. Miller, who was coherent throughout the questioning, passed out at the end.

The state trial court refused to suppress the confession,*fn3 and Miller was convicted after a four-day trial.*fn4 A three-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court reversed unanimously, stating "we deplore the techniques and tactics which extracted this confession and which, in our judgment, denied defendant due process of law." The court's opinion, which is principally composed of quotes from the interrogation transcript, characterizes Boyce's method of interrogation as "psychological pressure," and in a short conclusion invoked the "the fair winds of due process" which "blow on the guilty as well as the innocent."*fn5

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the conviction. State v. Miller, 76 N.J. 392, 388 A.2d 218 (1978). The court stated the appropriate legal standard:

Every case must turn on its particular facts. In determining the issue of voluntariness, and whether a suspect's will has been overborne, a court should assess the totality of all the surrounding circumstances. It should consider the characteristics of the suspect and the details of the interrogation. Some of the relevant factors include the suspect's age, education and intelligence, advice as to constitutional rights, length of detention, whether the questioning was repeated and prolonged in nature and whether physical punishment or mental exhaustion was involved. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 226, 93 S. Ct. 2041, 2047, 36 L. Ed. 2d 854, 862 (1973). A suspect's previous encounters with the law has been mentioned as an additional relevant factor. State v. Puchalski, 45 N.J. 97, 101, 211 A.2d 370 (1965).

76 N.J. at 402, 388 A.2d at 223. The court then proceeded to make subsidiary findings on the relevant factors, and applying the "totality of the circumstances" standard, held that the use of the "friendly cop" approach by Boyce did not overbear Miller's will. The court relied primarily on the following facts: the interrogation was not excessively long, Boyce at no time misled Miller into thinking he was anything but an interrogating police officer, and Miller understood the significance and probable outcome of confessing to the killing of Deborah Margolin. Id. at 403-04, 388 A.2d at 224. The court held that "the interrogation in this case did not exceed the proper bounds and that the voluntariness of defendant's confession could properly have been determined by the trial court to be established beyond a reasonable doubt." Id.

Miller petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The petition was referred to a magistrate, who recommended that the writ be denied. The district court agreed, rejecting Miller's contention that the psychological pressure created by the questioning made the confession involuntary in the constitutional sense. The district court held that, based on its independent review of the evidence, including the tape of the confession, Miller's will was not "overborne" by Boyce's questioning. The court adopted the magistrate's recommendation denying the writ of habeas corpus and granting a certificate of probable cause.*fn6 This appeal followed.


Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a state court factual finding is entitled to a "presumption of correctness" in a federal habeas corpus proceeding unless one of eight enumerated exceptions apply.*fn7 The first seven exceptions, which go to the procedural adequacy of the state proceedings, are not applicable to this case. The eighth exception, which we address below, applies where a factual conclusion is not adequately supported by the record as a whole.

The controlling case on the application of the eighth exception in this context is Patterson v. Cuyler, 729 F.2d 925 (3d Cir. 1984). Patterson's principal holding is that a decision of a state court concerning the voluntariness of a waiver of Miranda rights is entitled to the "presumption of correctness." Writing for the court, Judge Sloviter analyzed four recent Supreme Court decisions emphasizing the great deference due to state court factual findings in habeas corpus proceedings. See Rushen v. Spain, 464 U.S. 114, 104 S. Ct. 453, 78 L. Ed. 2d 267 (1983) (biased nature of jury deliberations is a finding of fact; presumption of correctness applies); Maggio v. Fulford, 462 U.S. 111, 103 S. Ct. 2261, 76 L. Ed. 2d 794 (1983) (presumption applies to competence to stand trial); Marshall v. Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422, 103 S. Ct. 843, 74 L. Ed. 2d 646 (1983) (presumption applies to voluntariness of a guilty plea); Sumner v. Mata, 455 U.S. 591, 102 S. Ct. 1303, 71 L. Ed. 2d 480 (1982) (presumption applies to state of mind of witness in pre-trial photographic identification). On the basis of these cases, Judge Sloviter concluded that, contrary to our prior holdings,*fn8 "mixed questions of law and fact" such as whether a confession is voluntary or not are subject to the presumption of correctness contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

Neither Patterson nor the recent Supreme Court decisions hold that we have lost our plenary power to review questions of federal law. Instead, the Court has mandated that we treat state-court factual findings dealing with a defendant's state of mind as such, and apply the presumption of correctness, even where that finding may be dispositive as a matter of law of the defendant's claim. Section 2254(d), of course, contains exceptions, the most important of which is that the presumption does not apply unless the factual findings are fairly supported by the record. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Thus, as we read Patterson and the recent Supreme Court cases which it interprets, our review is limited to determining whether the state court applied the proper legal test, and whether the factual conclusions reached by the state court are supported on the record as a whole;*fn9 to the extent that our prior holdings gave us plenary review over state court findings as to state of mind, they are no longer valid.

The dissent complains bitterly that our opinion, which is, of course, informed by Patterson, reads recent decisions of the Supreme Court as effectively overruling, sub silentio, fifty years of caselaw of that Court holding that the question whether a defendant's state of mind renders his confession involuntary is a question of law, over which we have plenary review in a habeas corpus case. The dissent may be correct on this point. Patterson is binding precedent, however, and we must apply it unless we find it distinguishable, which we do not.*fn10 We note that Patterson's reading of the trend of the recent Supreme Court decisions has since been reinforced by the Court in Patton v. Yount, 467 U.S. 1025, 104 S. Ct. 2885, 81 L. Ed. 2d 847, 52 U.S.L.W. 4896, 4899 n.12 (1984).*fn11 At all events, we believe that Patterson was correctly decided and that its principles are applicable to voluntary confession cases.*fn12

The concept of voluntariness is not one that lends itself to easy description. In determining whether a confession is voluntary, a court must make three determinations. First, the court must find the subsidiary facts on which the ultimate conclusion must be based -- the circumstances surrounding the defendant's confession. Second, the court must draw an inference as to the effect that those surrounding circumstances had on the defendant's mental processes. Third, the court must determine whether the mental processes which led the defendant to confess were such that the confession was "voluntary" within the constitutional standard. See Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568, 603, 81 S. Ct. 1860, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1037 (1961). The dissent does not dispute that, in reviewing a finding of voluntariness, we must defer as to the state court's findings of the subsidiary facts, such as the circumstances of the questioning and the defendant's mental capacities, as long as they are supported by the evidence. There is also no dispute that we are free to review, on a plenary basis, the legal standard applied to the "state of mind" inference drawn by the state court. The disputed question in this case is whether the inference as to the defendant's state of mind should be treated as a separate factual conclusion, to which we must also defer, or whether it is so inextricably bound up with the legal standard that the two steps are really one, over which we have plenary review.*fn13

In the long series of cases cited by the dissent, the Supreme Court confronted confessions made under varying circumstances. These cases generally presented undisputed facts, including unrecorded interrogation of the defendant by police officers, long periods of questioning during which the defendant was denied sleep, access to counsel, or any other form of outside support, and often included disputes over whether physical force was used. The Court was consistently dubious that a confession given under these circumstances could be considered "voluntary"; yet state judges and juries were finding, on the basis of these facts, that confessions were voluntary. A precise legal definition of voluntariness, however, remained elusive. As a result, the Court engaged in an independent, case-by-case review of the state courts' conclusions concerning voluntariness, on the basis of the subsidiary facts as found by the state court, and substituted its conclusions for that of the state courts.

The case which perhaps best highlights the Court's approach to this problem is one stressed by the dissent: Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568, 81 S. Ct. 1860, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1037 (1961). In Culombe, the Court utilized the same three-stage analysis as we do here, but did not treat state court findings concerning the defendant's state of mind as binding. The court did not, however, base its holding on an unconstrained review of the state-of-mind finding. This is clear from a passage from Justice Frankfurter's opinion in Culombe which immediately follows the segments quoted by the dissent:

Great weight, of course, is to be accorded to the inferences which are drawn by the state courts. In a dubious case, it is appropriate with due regard to federal-state relations, that the state court's determination should control. But where on the uncontested external happenings, coercive forces set in motion by state law enforcement officials are unmistakably in action; where these forces, under all the prevailing states of stress, are powerful enough to draw forth a confession; where, in fact, the confession does come forth and is claimed by the defendant to have been extorted from him; and where he has acted as a man would act ...

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