New Service Rule Applicable to the State Prosecuting Attorney Per Misc. Docket No. 19-012
1. “Whether statements made by police detectives during their interrogation of the Appellant constituted a threat to arrest and charge his wife with capital murder if, and only if, he did not confess to it himself.”
2. “Whether police detectives had probable cause to arrest Appellant’s wife for capital murder.”
3. “Whether the existence of probable cause to arrest Appellant’s wife for capital murder, if it existed, was sufficient to excuse threats to arrest and charge her with capital murder if Appellant did not confess to it himself.”
4. “Whether truthful statements made to Appellant by police detectives during their interrogation of him were sufficient to excuse threats to arrest and charge his wife with capital murder if he did not confess to it himself.”
5. “Whether Appellant’s involuntary confession to police detectives was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A foster child under Lopez’s care died as a result of blunt force injuries to her chest and abdomen. The level of applied force required an adult, and Lopez and his wife were the only adults home at the time. Police suspected Lopez, who admitted to watching the child that day but denied any wrongdoing. During separate non-custodial interviews, detectives told Lopez and his wife that if Lopez did not admit responsibility both he and his wife could be arrested, resulting in CPS removing their children. Lopez gave a detailed confession the next day. He moved to suppress his statements as involuntary, but the trial court concluded the detectives did not threaten or coerce him.
The court of appeals affirmed. It held that a confession is voluntary even if police “threaten” a family member so long as the statements accurately reflect the potential consequences they face and are based on probable cause. Of all the relevant communications to Lopez and his wife, the court of appeals found two were arguably threats. However, the detectives had probable cause that one or both were responsible, and the removal of their children was a foreseeable consequence. Alternatively, the court held that any error in the admission of the confession was harmless because a separate confession was admitted without objection.
Lopez argues that, despite federal precedent that might support the holding, the Court of Criminal Appeals has not yet embraced it. He says, “Threatening to throw a man’s wife in jail if he does not confess to a crime is ipso facto just the kind of thing that is likely to overbear his will.” Regarding harm, Lopez says it is not clear the court of appeals used the standard for constitutional errors and says it would have been irrational to find the error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. His argument is based, in part, on the fact that the same evidence was presented in a previous trial that ended in a mistrial with nine jurors favoring acquittal.