Murder, insanity appeal focuses on police interrogation, Miranda

“I’m done talking,” Bargersville criminal defense attorney Stacy Uliana repeated before a panel of appellate judges Wednesday on behalf of her client, Joshua Risinger.

Risinger spoke those words nearly 20 minutes into a police interrogation of him after he was found walking away from a trailer home he allegedly set on fire, Uliana said in oral arguments. Law enforcement discovered the remains of a homeless man inside the burned trailer who had been staying as a guest in Risinger’s home, and a jury ultimately found Risinger guilty but mentally ill of felony murder, murder and arson, which the Washington Circuit Court merged into one count of murder.

Risinger appealed his conviction in Joshua B. Risinger v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-00281 to a panel of traveling appellate judges Edward Najam, L. Mark Bailey and Cale Bradford. Risinger challenged the trial court’s decision to admit three interrogations performed by officers after he repeatedly said he was done talking.

The statements and waiver of his Miranda rights were involuntary, Risinger argued on appeal, and police failed to cease interrogations after he invoked his Miranda rights. Because the police did not honor his rights and because Risinger was overtly psychotic during the interviews, Uliana explained to the panel, the police violated Risinger’s state and constitutional rights and the trial court abused its discretion in failing to grant his motion to suppress.

When asked, Uliana said she wasn’t sure if her client verbally acknowledged that he understood he had the right to remain silent or stop interrogation at any time, but that he did sign his name on the Miranda rights waiver given to him.

“Under Miranda we all know that police officers have to honor the request to remain silent, which they didn’t do here,” she said. “Instead they engaged in interrogation tactics to make him talk.”

Arguing on behalf of the state, supervising deputy attorney general Ian McLean argued that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted Risinger’s statements, which he contended were ambiguous.

“When someone say’s ‘I’m done talking,’ they don’t necessarily mean that,” McLean said. He argued that a defendant should clearly state that he wants to remain silent or that he does not want to talk to police.

Although the state argued Risinger’s interview did not contain any unequivocal assertion of his right to end the interview, the panel questioned how Risinger’s statement that he was done talking was up for interpretation.

“How does any man not know that the guy doesn’t want to talk anymore? What’s ambiguous about that?” Bradford asked.

The context of the dialogue was ambiguous, McLean said. He used the example of someone saying, “I’m done working” but not necessarily meaning to say that they are going to retire and hand in a letter of resignation.

“I’m done with this and I’m done talking are two different things,” Bradford interjected.

In response to the state’s assertion that Risinger’s statement of “I don’t want to talk anymore” was not a request to stop the interview, Uliana argued that would be an impossible standard.

“How can anyone ever invoke their right to be silenced if that is not an unequivocal request? What he’s asking here is to change Miranda,” she said. “He’s asking for the defendants to not only unequivocally say ‘I’m done talking,’ but then to be quiet when the police don’t respect it. That’s not what Miranda says.”

Uliana further argued that the context of the dialogue benefited the defendant’s case, rather than showed his statements were ambiguous. Risinger also challenged the trial court’s decision to allow a forensic psychiatrist to testify that Indiana’s legal standard for insanity is whether a defendant can appreciate the legal wrongfulness of his actions. Instead, Risinger argued the standard is moral wrongfulness.

Risinger requested the appellate panel reverse the trial court and send the case back for a new trial.

The full oral argument can be viewed here.

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