In the last 44 years, the Miranda warning has become as American as the Iowa State Fair. Most of us could recite it in our sleep, particularly the part that goes: You have the right to remain silent. Police and prosecutors, who once saw it as coddling criminals, have learned to live with this modest obligation.
But not everyone is so adaptable. Some people bridle at the notion of going along with something that protects the guilty as well as the innocent. Five of them sit on the Supreme Court of the United States.
They read the Miranda protections the way W.C. Fields read the Bible: looking for loopholes. That became blindingly evident this week when the court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled against a defendant who said he had been deprived of his freedom to keep his mouth shut.
After being arrested and told of his right to remain silent, Van Chester Thompkins proceeded to exercise it. He refused to speak, beyond a few one-word responses to innocuous questions, such as whether his chair was hard. But his police interrogators were not to be denied.
For nearly three hours they confined him in a small room and peppered him with questions. Finally, Thompkins was asked if he prayed to God to forgive him for "shooting that boy down," and he replied, "Yes." He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.
His lawyers said that having indicated his choice to remain silent, he should have been spared further grilling. On their side is common sense, which says that if someone announces you are free not to speak, not speaking is an unmistakable way to convey your exercise of that prerogative.
But common sense is not always abundant in the halls of justice. The Supreme Court claims that Thompkins' persistent silence didn't suggest a choice to remain silent. Its logic: How can I know you don't want to talk if you won't say anything?
It doesn't occur to the five justices that someone in the grasp of the police, after hours of relentless questioning, would conclude that his right to remain silent was meaningless -- that he would be interrogated until he answered.
Justice Anthony Kennedy insisted there was no evidence the suspect had the slightest desire to invoke the privilege. "Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk with the police," asserted Kennedy.