Miller v. Fenton

Citation741 F.2d 1456
Decision Date28 September 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-5530,83-5530
PartiesFrank M. MILLER, Jr., Appellant, v. Peter J. FENTON, Superintendent, Rahway State Prison, Irwin I. Kimmelman, Attorney General, State of New Jersey, Appellees.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)

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

Irwin I. Kimmelman, Atty. Gen. Arlene R. Weiss (Argued), Deputy Atty. Gen., Division of Criminal Justice, Trenton, N.J., for appellees.

Before GIBBONS and BECKER, Circuit Judges, and ATKINS, District Judge. *


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. Sec. 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. 1

The state police made a tape recording of Miller's statement. 2 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 "[y]ou 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 too. 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 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...

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