Poyner v. Com., s. 841434

CourtSupreme Court of Virginia
Citation329 S.E.2d 815,229 Va. 401
Docket Number841539,841435,Nos. 841434,841540 and 841589,s. 841434
PartiesSyvasky Lafayette POYNER v. COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA. (Three Cases) Record
Decision Date26 April 1985

David Holland, Alexandria, for appellant in Nos. 841434 and 841435.

Jacqueline G. Epps, Sr. Asst. Atty. Gen. (Gerald L. Baliles, Atty. Gen., on brief), for appellee in Nos. 841434 and 841435.

Richard B. Blackwell, Hampton (Kevin P. Shea; McNamara & Shea, Hampton, on brief), for appellant in Nos. 841539 and 841540.

Richard B. Smith, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Gerald L. Baliles, Atty. Gen., on brief), for appellee in Nos. 841539 and 841540.

R.L. Shrecengost, Hampton (Brooks & Shrecengost, Hampton, on brief), for appellant in No. 841589.

Todd E. LePage, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Gerald L. Baliles, Atty. Gen., on brief), for appellee in No. 841589.

Before all the Justices.

THOMAS, Justice.

I. Background

In three separate trials, Syvasky Lafayette Poyner was convicted of the capital murders of five women. He was sentenced to death for each offense. The five death sentences are before the Court pursuant to the automatic review provision of Code § 17-110.1. We have consolidated Poyner's appeals of his convictions with our automatic review of his death sentences and have given the cases priority on the docket.

The five women were killed in an eleven-day period in late January and early February 1984. All were shot in the head. The murders occurred in the Hampton-Williamsburg-Newport News area of Virginia.

Poyner was arrested in Newport News on February 4, 1984, as part of the investigation into the murder of a Hampton woman. He was taken to the Newport News detective bureau where he was served with a warrant charging him with the Hampton murder.

Before any questioning, a Newport News detective, C.D. Spinner, orally advised Poyner of his Miranda rights. The warning given to Poyner was essentially as follows:

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.

You have the right to have an attorney present before any questions.

If you cannot afford an attorney, the Court is empowered to appoint one for you.

Spinner next asked Poyner whether he understood his rights. Poyner said he did. Spinner then summarized the evidence against Poyner regarding the murder of the Hampton woman for which Poyner had been arrested. Spinner asked Poyner whether he had anything to say. Poyner responded by asking, "Didn't you tell me I had the right to an attorney?" Spinner replied, "Yes, you have the right to an attorney." At that point Spinner and another detective, who was present during the exchange, made a motion to stand up. Poyner then spontaneously said, "Let me tell you about the car," a reference to an automobile which the police contended linked Poyner to the Hampton murder. The other detective, Edgar Browning of the Hampton police, then asked Poyner, "Did you kill her?" Poyner said, "Yes." Thereafter, Poyner confessed to five murders: the killings of Clara Paulette and Chestine Brooks in Williamsburg (the Williamsburg Case), the killings of Joyce Baldwin and Carolyn Hedrick in Hampton (the Hampton Case), and the killing of Vicki Ripple in Newport News (the Newport News Case). Approximately fourteen hours after Poyner's initial confession, he signed a rights waiver form and confessed again on videotape to the five murders.

We will separately develop the facts of each case during the discussion of the separate appeals. At the outset, however, we will dispose of certain threshold or pre-trial matters raised in the appeals.

II. Threshold and Pre-Trial Matters
A. Constitutionality of the Death Penalty

In the Williamsburg and Newport News cases, Poyner attacks the constitutionality of the Virginia capital murder statute. In both cases Poyner readily admits that this Court has previously considered the matter and has consistently ruled that the statute is constitutional. Poyner raises no arguments that have not already been carefully considered. We reject his constitutional attacks. The Virginia capital murder statute is constitutional. See Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983); Edmonds v. Commonwealth, 229 Va. 303, 329 S.E.2d 807 (1985) (this day decided).

B. Adequacy of the Oral Miranda Warning and Admissibility of Poyner's Confession

In each appeal, Poyner complains either that the oral Miranda warning was defective or that for other reasons his confession should have been suppressed. Because of the slightly different approaches taken in each appeal, we will treat the arguments as they arose in the separate cases.

1. Miranda Issue: The Williamsburg Case
a. The Initial Confession Following the Oral Warning

Poyner contends that his initial confession, following the oral Miranda warning, should have been suppressed because the warning was defective. He contends further that the videotaped confession which followed his execution of a written rights waiver form should have been suppressed because it was the fruit of the tainted original confession. Both contentions are without merit.

The oral warning is set out in full above. On brief, Poyner says the warning was defective because it was "so vague as to beg the question as to when the Court would appoint Poyner a lawyer...." In oral argument, Poyner admitted he had been advised of the right to counsel prior to questioning but said he was not told that if he could not afford a lawyer, one would be appointed prior to questioning.

Further, during oral argument, Poyner admitted that in determining the adequacy of the warning, the statement to the defendant must be considered as a whole. Moreover, he conceded that Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), contains no "iron-clad requirements" concerning the language that must be used to convey to defendant his rights under the Fifth Amendment.

In essence, Poyner contends the oral warning would have been sufficient had the last warning repeated a phrase previously stated in the series of warnings. The critical defect, in Poyner's view, is shown by the following comparison of what was said with what Poyner contends should have been said:

                   Portion of Actual Warning             Suggested Warning
                --------------------------------  --------------------------------
                You have the right to have an     You have the right to have an
                attorney present before any       attorney present before any
                questions.                        questions
                If you cannot afford an attorney  If you cannot afford an attorney
                the Court is empowered to         the Court is empowered to
                appoint one for you.              appoint one for you prior to
                                                  any questioning

Poyner argues that without the italicized language, the warning was defective. We think not.

The language which Poyner says was essential to his understanding of his rights is redundant. Miranda does not require such redundancy. That opinion contains no prescription as to the words that must be used in warning a defendant. See Miranda, 384 U.S. at 467, 86 S.Ct. at 1624. Here, taking the warning as a whole, it is clear that defendant was advised he had the right to the appointment of counsel prior to any questioning.

In support of his argument that the oral warning was defective, Poyner cites Biggerstaff v. State, 491 P.2d 345 (Okla.Crim.App.1971). That case does not support his argument. Biggerstaff did not concern a contention that the defendant was not made aware of his right to the appointment of an attorney prior to questioning. Biggerstaff was concerned with whether the defendant was made aware that he had the right to the presence of his attorney during questioning. Id. at 352.

b. The Videotaped Confession Following Execution of the Written Rights Waiver Form

Even if the oral warning had been defective, the confession following the written warning would still have been constitutionally sufficient. This is the lesson of Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298, 105 S.Ct. 1285, 84 L.Ed.2d 222 (1985), where the Supreme Court considered the precise issue raised here by Poyner. There, defendant, while in a custodial setting, made an unwarned, inculpatory statement in response to a question from a police officer. One hour later, defendant was fully advised of his rights; he said he wished to make a statement. He confessed to the crime under investigation. There was no claim that the second confession was coerced under threats or promises. Defendant moved to suppress the second confession on the ground that it was the tainted fruit of the first confession. The Court rejected that argument stating as follows:

It is an unwarranted extension of Miranda to hold that a simple failure to administer the warnings, unaccompanied by any actual coercion or other circumstances calculated to undermine the suspect's ability to exercise his free will, so taints the investigatory process that a subsequent voluntary and informed waiver is ineffective for some indeterminate period. Though Miranda requires that the unwarned admission must be suppressed, the admissibility of any subsequent statement should turn in these circumstances solely on whether it is knowingly and voluntarily made.

470 U.S. at ----, 105 S.Ct. at 1293-94. The Court went on to hold that "a suspect who has once responded to unwarned yet uncoercive questioning is not thereby disabled from waiving his rights and confessing after he has been given the requisite Miranda warnings." Id. at ----, 105 S.Ct. at 1298.

2. Miranda Issue: The Hampton Case
a. Adequacy of the Warning

Here, Poyner contends the oral Miranda warning was not "effective and express" but instead was "equivocal and ambiguous" because, in his view, the logical conclusion that a defendant would draw from the oral warning given here is that "he must wait until the Court can get an attorney appointed; which will be some time in the future." The...

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