Judge takes motions under consideration
Hearings on motions in the Monte L. Meier murder trial continued through the beginning of this week as District Judge Dave Gamble heard arguments on whether to allow statements made by Meier while being questioned by police before being read his Miranda rights.
“I’m fairly close on this issue in my own mind,” said Gamble to defense attorney Terri Steik Roeser and Deputy District Attorney Tom Perkins at the motions hearing which concluded yesterday morning.
Roeser had argued for the defense Monday afternoon to suppress what she called an interrogation by police when they came to the Meier residence to execute a search warrant to look for Meier’s wife’s body.
Meier, 57, is charged with murdering his wife, Julie, then burying her body in a grave in the back yard of the couple’s Stateline residence. Meier is also charged with possession of forged documents and destruction of evidence.
Roeser said Meier was interrogated for three hours on May 16, 1996, the day Julie Meier was exhumed, before his rights were finally read by officers. Further, Roeser said, he was in custody at the time of the questioning and by law must have been advised of his rights.
She said the issue is not whether the officers, in their opinion, felt Meier was in custody, but if a reasonable person under the same circumstances would believe he or she was being deprived of freedom.
“This was clearly an atmosphere dominated by police and they were controlling his actions,” said Roeser.
Roeser said Capt. Bob Wenner of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said, “We’re not leaving,” to Meier.
She said Meier then said, “I can’t leave,” which no officers refuted.
Roeser said the handling of Meier during the interrogation also was grounds for alleging improper conduct by the DCSO as police ordered Meier to move around the residence and to sit down at various times.
“A reasonable person under these circumstances would think they were in custody,” said Roeser.
Gamble then asked Roeser to address the fact that Meier was allowed to drink alcohol while being interrogated by police, telling the attorney that a drink in Meier’s hand would indicate a lack of custody.
“I disagree. It works to the opposite. One can’t make those rational decisions when intoxicated,” said Roeser telling Gamble he must decide whether a reasonable drunk person under those circumstances would have their rights violated.
“I don’t know of any other circumstances where a person in custody is allowed to drink,” said Gamble.
Roeser said that any confession must be made freely and voluntarily without any kind of coercion. She said Meier was coerced by police into statements made during the interrogation. She said police told him they needed his cooperation and that they could help each other or else they would come in with a backhoe and tear his house apart.
“If he cooperated, it could be real easy-like and gentle, or if you don’t cooperate, it would get worse,” Roeser quoted police as saying during the interrogation.
Roeser said police told Meier that he was in need of medical attention and they could get him the help he needed, but that he must help them, too.
“It’s a two-way street,” Roeser quoted. “Just show me where she is and we’ll get out and give you some peace.”
Roeser said this statement made by police inferred that if Meier helped them, they’d leave him alone.
“All these were clearly designed to illicit incriminating evidence against Monte Meier,” said Roeser. “They should be suppressed on the grounds that they weren’t voluntarily made.”
Also, Roeser asked that statements made by Meier during a follow-up interrogation by DCSO investigator Ron Bushey not be allowed, telling Gamble that Bushey testified he was trying to clarify statements made in, what she called, an illegal interrogation.
She said during this interview, when Meier was beginning to feel the effects of alcohol withdrawal, Bushey told him they’d help him with the alcohol withdrawal if he helped them.
“Deputy (John) Munk said the DTs (delirium tremens) were the worst he’d ever seen. They took him to the hospital. He couldn’t walk or put on his shoes, but we’re supposed to believe he could waive his constitutional rights?” said Roeser.
Perkins said it was clear from Meier’s testimony that he didn’t think he was in custody at the time of the interrogation. Perkins admitted that police may have attempted to use some coercion tactics but he said that was not the issue.
“If coercion is not successful, then he’s not the victim of coercion,” said Perkins.
Perkins said the point of the interrogation was not to incriminate Meier or to get a confession, but merely to ascertain the location of Julie Meier’s body.
“I don’t think there’s one bit of credible evidence that Mr. Meier thought he wasn’t free to go,” said Perkins. “You’ve heard evidence but not credible evidence.”
Perkins said that when investigators moved Meier to his kitchen he said, “Go ahead and arrest me.”
He said that when investigators then told him they’d get a backhoe and dig, he said, “Go ahead, it’s none of your business. She’s my wife.”
“Was he really a coercion victim or was he doing what he normally does and just happened to be doing it with the police and not a couple of buddies?” he said.
Perkins said that because Meier had trouble walking is not a reason to consider that he was in custody.
“He had trouble walking before,” said Perkins.
Perkins said that the fact that Meier was only allowed to be in his kitchen and living room also was not a reason to think he was in custody.
“That’s were he lived,” said Perkins of the two rooms. “All the other rooms were trashed.
“There’s no police misconduct here, no sinister design. They were just trying to find out where she was.”
Roeser refuted Perkins’ argument by saying that if the state’s position is that there is no evidentiary value to the interrogation then that’s another reason why the testimony should be suppressed.
Gamble asked Roeser if she thought he could admit some of the statements made during the interrogation and suppress others. Roeser said that if her client was psychologically coerced by police, then all of the interrogation should be inadmissable.
Roeser said it was only after he had been interrogated for hours while drinking, told he would finally get some peace, and also told by police that they would get his power turned back on in his house that Meier agreed to show investigators where the body was located.
“But they’d already found the body,” said Gamble.
“I disagree with that,” said Roeser, saying that when Meier asked them if they’d found the body, one officer answered that they were “real close.”
Gamble said that would contradict the testimony of the officer who testified that they had found the body at that point in the investigation.
“Yes,” said Roeser, who then finished her rebuttal to Perkins’ comments by reverting to whether Meier was in custody during the interrogation.
“The law is clear. A police man’s unarticulated plan has no bearing, only what a reasonable man in this situation would have believed. Alcohol is a major factor, that can’t be ignored. Even if it (being under the influence) is normal for him, it’s still a factor. It has an impact on his free will.”
Gamble said that he’d attempt to have a ruling on this motion to suppress as well as other motions, including a motion by the prosecution to allow prior bad acts of Meier into evidence to show an alleged pattern of spousal abuse, by later this week.
The trial is scheduled to begin April 7.