Miller v. Fenton, 83-5530

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore SEITZ, GIBBONS and BECKER; BECKER; GIBBONS; This line of argument, never advanced by Miller's able counsel, is flawed. First, the evidence that the police already had--principally the description given by Ms. Margolin's brothers of an automobi
Citation796 F.2d 598
PartiesFrank M. MILLER, Jr., Appellant, v. Peter J. FENTON, Superintendent, Rahway State Prison, Irwin I. Kimmelman, Attorney General, State of New Jersey, Appellees.
Docket NumberNo. 83-5530,83-5530
Decision Date26 June 1986

Joseph H. Rodriguez, Public Defender, Paul M. Klein (argued), Claudia Van Wyk, Asst. Deputy Public Defenders, East Orange, N.J., for appellant.

Irwin I. Kimmelman, Atty. Gen., Anne C. Paskow (argued), Deputy Atty. Gen., Div. of Crim. Justice, Appellate Section, Trenton, N.J., for appellees.

Before SEITZ, GIBBONS and BECKER, Circuit Judges.


BECKER, Circuit Judge.

This state habeas corpus appeal requires us to determine whether a confession to murder, alleged by the petitioner to have been secured by psychological coercion, was voluntary and hence admissible. After reviewing the circumstances of the confession under a plenary standard, see Miller v. Fenton, --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 445, 88 L.Ed.2d 405 (1985), rev'g Miller v. Fenton, 741 F.2d 1456 (3d Cir.1984), we find that the confession was voluntary. We therefore affirm.


On August 13, 1973, seventeen-year-old Deborah Margolin was brutally murdered. According to her brothers, she was sitting on the porch of her home in rural East Amwell Township when a stranger approached in an automobile and informed her that a heifer was loose at the bottom of the driveway. Ms. Margolin drove alone in her brother's car to retrieve the heifer. She never returned. Later that day, her father found her mutilated body lying face down in a creek.

When the New Jersey State Police arrived at the scene, the victim's brothers gave them a description of the stranger who had driven up to the house and of the car he had driven, an old white car with the trunk tied shut and two dents in the side. One of the officers recalled that the petitioner, Miller, who lived nearby, drove a car that matched that description. Detective Boyce of the State Police confirmed the description of the car and also concluded that the description of the stranger fit Miller, who had been convicted in 1969 of carnal abuse and arrested in 1973 for statutory rape.

At about 10:50 p.m. that day, the state police questioned Miller at his place of employment, P.F.D. Plastics in Trenton. After a brief discussion, he agreed to accompany the officers to the police barracks for further questioning. At the barracks, Miller spent about seventy-five minutes waiting with Trooper Scott, during which time he was not questioned. He was then taken into an interrogation room by Detective Boyce and read his Miranda rights. Miller signed a Miranda card, thus waiving his Miranda rights, 1 and Boyce's interrogation ensued. One hour into the interrogation, Miller confessed to the murder of Deborah Margolin, then passed out.


Miller was indicted for first-degree murder. Before his trial, he moved to suppress the confession as involuntary, but the state trial court denied the motion. After a trial at which the confession was received as evidence, Miller was convicted. On appeal of the conviction, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court unanimously reversed, finding that Detective Boyce's technique in eliciting the confession 2 had denied Miller due process of law. Characterizing Boyce's method of interrogation as "psychological pressure," the panel held that as a result of that pressure, Miller's confession had not been voluntary. 3 In a 4-3 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the conviction. State v. Miller, 76 N.J. 392, 388 A.2d 218 (1978). Looking at the totality of the circumstances, the court held that Boyce's interrogation tactics had not overborne Miller's will, and that the confession had indeed been voluntary and thus properly admissible into evidence.

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 Boyce's questioning created psychological pressure that rendered the confession involuntary. Miller thereupon appealed to this Court.

In Miller v. Fenton, 741 F.2d 1456 (3rd Cir.1984), rev'd and remanded --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 445, 88 L.Ed.2d 405 (1985), we held that under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2254(d), federal review of the state court's finding of voluntariness was deferential, limited to determining whether the state court had applied the proper legal test and whether the conclusion reached by the state court was supported by the record as a whole. 4 Applying that standard, we upheld the determination that Miller's confession was voluntary. Although we noted in passing that even if our review on the question of voluntariness had been plenary, we would have reached the same result, id. at 1467 n. 21, we did not engage in any detailed analysis of the question of voluntariness under a plenary standard.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. Miller v. Fenton, --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 445, 88 L.Ed.2d 405 (1985). Stating that the issue of voluntariness is a legal, rather than a factual, question, the Court held that whether the challenged confession was voluntary is a matter for independent federal appellate determination. It remanded the case so that we might conduct a fuller analysis under the correct standard. We now engage in such an inquiry and conclude that Miller's confession was elicited in a manner compatible with the requirements of the Constitution.


At the outset of our analysis, it is essential that we review the salient features of the interrogation. 5 Because the state police taped the interrogation, we have had an opportunity actually to hear Detective Boyce's questions and Miller's responses. A significant portion of the questioning was in the typical police interrogation mode, developing chronologically Miller's whereabouts on the day in question, confronting him with the identification of his car, asking him point-blank whether he committed the crime, challenging his answers, and attempting to discover the details of the crime. This element of the interrogation is unexceptionable and unchallenged. We shall therefore focus primarily on the features of the interrogation that are at issue.

It is clear that Boyce made no threats and engaged in no physical coercion of Miller. To the contrary, throughout the interview, Detective Boyce assumed a friendly, understanding manner and spoke in a soft tone of voice. He repeatedly assured Miller that he was sympathetic to him and wanted to help him unburden his mind. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the Detective's statements of sympathy at times approached the maudlin:

Boyce: Now listen to me, Frank. This hurts me more than it hurts you, because I love people.

* * *

* * *

Boyce: Let it come out, Frank. I'm here, I'm here with you now. I'm on your side, I'm on your side, Frank. I'm your brother, you and I are brothers, Frank. We are brothers, and I want to help my brother.

* * *

* * *

Boyce: We have, we have a relationship, don't we? Have I been sincere with you, Frank?

Boyce also gave Miller certain factual information, some of which was untrue. At the beginning of the interrogation, for example, Boyce informed Miller that the victim was still alive; this was false. During the interview, Boyce told Miller that Ms. Margolin had just died, although in fact she had been found dead several hours earlier.

Detective Boyce's major theme throughout the interrogation was that whoever had committed such a heinous crime had mental problems and was desperately in need of psychological treatment. From early in the interview, Detective Boyce led Miller to understand that he believed that Miller had committed the crime and that Miller now needed a friend to whom he could unburden himself. The Detective stated several times that Miller was not a criminal who should be punished, but a sick individual who should receive help. He assured Miller that he (Detective Boyce) was sincerely understanding and that he wished to help him with his problem. The following excerpts from the transcript of the interrogation provide examples of the statements about Miller's having psychological problems, as well as of the assurances of help:

Boyce: [L]et's forget this incident, [l]et's talk about your problem. This is what, this is what I'm concerned with, Frank, your problem.

Miller: Right.

Boyce: If I had a problem like your problem, I would want you to help me with my problem.

Miller: Uh, huh.

Boyce: Now, you know what I'm talking about.

Miller: Yeah.

Boyce: And I know, and I think that, uh, a lot of other people know. You know what I'm talking about. I don't think you're a criminal, Frank.

Miller: No, but you're trying to make me one.

Boyce: No I'm not, no I'm not, but I want you to talk to me so we can get this thing worked out.

* * *

* * *

Boyce: I want you to talk to me. I want you to tell me what you think. I want you to tell me how you think about this, what you think about this.

Miller: What I think about it?

Boyce: Yeah.

Miller: I think whoever did it really needs help.

Boyce: And that's what I think and that's what I know. They don't, they don't need punishment, right? Like you said, they need help.

Miller: Right.

Boyce: They don't need punishment. They need help, good medical help.

Miller: That's right.

Boyce: [T]o rectify their problem. Putting them in, in a prison isn't going to solve it, is it?

Miller: No, sir. I know, I was in there for three and a half years.

* * *

* * *

Boyce: You can see it Frank, you can feel it, you can feel it but you are not responsible. This is what I'm trying to tell you, but you've got to come forward and tell...

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