COA reverses murder conviction in trailer fire over suspect’s statements 

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a man’s murder conviction stemming from a trailer fire. The appellate court concluded the man was incorrectly denied his motions to suppress incriminating statements made to police after he indicated he was done talking to them.

Joshua Risinger was found guilty but mentally ill of felony murder, murder and arson after a homeless man staying as a guest in Risinger’s trailer was killed when Risinger set fire to the trailer. A jury found Risinger guilty, after which the Washington Circuit Court merged the convictions into one count of murder.

Before that, however, law enforcement had continued to question a Mirandized Risinger after he stated in three separate interviews, “I’m done talking.”

Risinger appealed his conviction, challenging the trial court’s decision to admit the three interrogations performed by officers. Specifically, Risinger contended that the trial court erroneously allowed the admission of his statements made during the three police interviews because they were involuntarily given due to his mental illness. A panel of the appellate court disagreed on that point in a Monday decision, finding his waivers were voluntary because Risinger acknowledged verbally or through a thumbs up that he understood  his Miranda rights, was willing to talk to a detective, and read and signed a form acknowledging and waiving his rights.

“While it is true Risinger was suffering from a mental illness, that is only one of the numerous factors to be considered by the trial court in determining voluntariness,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the appellate court.

However, the appellate panel found issue with the trial court’s admission of the majority of the statements Risinger made during interviews even after he told officers “I’m done talking,” finding they were obtained in violation of his right to remain silent pursuant to Miranda.

“Here, Risinger unequivocally invoked his Miranda rights by stating ‘I’m done talking.’ Under these circumstances, we conclude that ‘I’m done talking’ was Risinger’s expressed desire to remain silent. While Risinger could have been clearer in expressing his desire by stating something such as ‘I’m invoking my right to remain silent,’ such a formal declaration is not what the law requires,” the appellate panel wrote.

“Rather than honoring Risinger’s assertion of his right to remain silent, the detectives continued to question him. This failure to scrupulously honor Risinger’s invocation of his Miranda rights led to the detectives obtaining incriminating statements from Risinger,” the panel continued. “Thus, we conclude that the statements made by Risinger during the first interview should not have been admitted at trial, with the exception of those made prior to Risinger’s invocation of his Miranda rights approximately nineteen minutes into the interview.”

Additionally, it found the second and third interviews should not have been admitted at trial, noting they amounted to nothing more than “shutting the barn doors long after the cows had bolted.”

“By the time the second and third interviews were conducted, Risinger had already confessed to starting the fire and killing Givan in the first interview,” Bradford wrote. “These subsequent interviews clearly built upon the confession which was unconstitutionally obtained by detectives after they failed to scrupulously honor Risinger’s invocation of his right to remain silent during the first interview.”

Concluding that Risinger’s statement was an unequivocal assertion of his desire to remain silent, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision in Joshua Risinger v. State of Indiana,19A-CR-28, finding an abuse of discretion in admitting the statements from all three interviews.

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