Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The ACLU Steps In

Ernest Miranda had spent the last two years sitting in the maximum security prison near Florence, Arizona, unaware of the role history would have for him. All he knew was that he wanted out of Florence and that the Arizona justice system had done him wrong. Filing as a pauper, Miranda submitted his plea for a writ of certiorari, or request for review of his case to the U.S. Supreme Court in June, 1965.

Outside the stone walls of Arizona State Prison, Mirandas case had come to the notice of some pretty important allies: the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU was looking for the right case to take to the U.S. Supreme Court to get clarification on Escobedo, and the ACLU district office in Phoenix had read McFarlands decision in the People v. Miranda with interest. The ACLU had taken an active role in the Escobedo case and in the many appeals that were based on Escobedo which had caused the state and federal courts to issue conflicting rulings.

The state director contacted Alvin Moore to see if he was willing to take the case to the Supreme Court, with a little help from the ACLU. Moore, who felt strongly that Miranda was not being dealt a fair hand by the courts, was unable to take the case because of his physical health at the time. It took several more phone calls on the part of ACLU attorney Robert J. Corcoran before he could find a lawyer who would take on Mirandas case.

John J. Flynn, a reputable criminal defense attorney with one of Phoenixs largest law firms, agreed to take Mirandas case as one of two cases the firm of Lewis, Roca, Scoville, Beauchamps & Linton would accept pro bono for the ACLU that year. Knowing this was a Supreme Court case and that one attorney would be overwhelmed, Flynn asked a partner, John P. Frank, to assist.

Neither man was deluded about their client. Ernest Miranda was at best a very sick individual, and at worst a rapist and kidnapper. Frank did not regard him as an innocent man trapped by a crooked justice system, but instead concentrated on the Constitutional questions that the high court would be asked to resolve.

To this day I dont know whether Miranda was guilty of the crime of rape or not, Frank would say later. He did something, but I dont know whether it was aggravated assault or rape.

When Flynn and Frank sat down to put together their request for writ of certiorari, they disagreed over which aspect of the Bill of Rights they should base their arguments upon. Mirandas case hinged on either his Fifth Amendment right to avoid being compelled to incriminate himself, or his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel. Frank argued the latter, while Flynn, who had spent time as a prosecutor, knew the tricks and techniques police used to extract confessions and believed Mirandas Fifth Amendment rights had been violated.

Eventually, Flynn and Frank would produce a 2,500 word brief less than half the size of this article that ultimately adopted Franks argument in favor of the right to counsel tack.

The Arizona Supreme Court has given Escobedo such a narrow construction that, for all practical purposes, the protections of the Sixth Amendment are not available to those persons so unaware of their rights or so intimidated that they do not request the guiding hand of counsel at this crucial stage.

The question the court needed to decide, they wrote, was whether a suspect needed to know of his right to request counsel, or if police would have to advise the perp of this basic right.

Over the summer of 1965, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who had fled the oppressive heat and humidity of the District of Columbia and were dispersed around the country, were inundated with requests for cert from appellants who had fallen under into the Escobedo morass. It was clear that something would have to be done quickly to address the legal questions that had arisen.

In November 1965, at the daylong intensely private deliberations that were attended only by the nine justices without benefit of their clerks, the decision was made to answer the pleas for help from the federal and state courts who were struggling with just what Escobedo was directing them to do. The case the U.S. Supreme Court chose to hear was Miranda v Arizona. Four other cases with facts similar to Mirandas would be combined for arguments that day, as well.


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