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Supreme Court Taking New Look at Criminal Confessions

April 2, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court, taking a fresh look at criminal confessions, is studying whether a suspect’s rights are violated when a police officer promises psychiatric help instead of prison in return for an admission of guilt.

The court agreed Monday to consider throwing out a murder conviction of a New Jersey man who confessed to a 1973 killing after an officer, playing the ″friendly cop,″ told the suspect he was not responsible for his actions.

The court, in a case it probably will not decide until next year, will hear an appeal by Frank M. Miller, convicted of murdering Deborah Margolin, 17, on Aug. 13, 1973, near her home in East Amwell Township. Her body was found in a creek, her throat and breasts cut.

Prosecutors said Miller first approached the girl while she was sunbathing at her house in a rural area. They said he lured her away from the house by telling her he saw a heifer wandering nearby.

Miller, who had been previously convicted of carnal abuse, was questioned for about one hour by a state police detective who told the suspect, ″I want to help you, because you are in my mind, you are not responsible.″

The detective promised to get Miller ″proper help″ with a psychiatrist.

Miller gave increasingly damaging statements and passed out after confessing.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, ruled that the confession was voluntary and that the detective’s ″friendly cop″ approach did not violate Miller’s rights.

Miller had been given so-called Miranda warnings that he was entitled to a lawyer and any statement he made could be used against him.

Last August, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state court ruling.

The federal appeals court, which heard a tape of the police questioning of Miller, said it had limited power to review the state court’s decision that the confession was voluntary.

A state court’s determination that a confession is voluntary is basically a factual question about the suspect’s state of mind, and the state court’s decision is presumed under federal law to be correct, the federal appeals court said.

The ″scope of federal supervision of the interrogation process″ is limited as long as police have given the suspect his Miranda warnings, the federal court said.

It noted that Miller did not undergo a particularly long period of questioning, was not denied food or necessities and was not physically abused or threatened.

″The objective facts support a factual inference that the defendant’s ‘state of mind’ was such that the confession was voluntary within the meaning of the Constitution,″ the appeals court said.

In other actions Monday, the court:

-Refused to let Texas A&M University ban a homosexual student group from its campus. The justices let stand a ruling that the state school violated gay students’ rights by not giving the group official recognition.

The homosexual group, Gay Student Services, may now begin using meeting space on the Texas A&M campus, gain access to school bulletin boards, advertise in the student newspaper and on the student radio station and obtain other perquisites of officially recognized student groups.

-Agreed to decide in a case from Spokane, Wash., whether states may deny financial aid to handicapped individuals who wish to study for careers as clergy members.

A state court said such financial help would violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

-Let North Carolina State University ban students from going door-to-door in student dormitories to solicit membership in Bible study groups.

-Said it will consider killing a 15-year-old antitrust lawsuit in which Zenith Radio Corp. and another U.S. maker of electronic products seek billions of dollars from their Japanese competitors.

The suit charges that various Japanese firms conspired to illegally ″dump″ products in this country at artificially lowered prices.

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