'Innocent People Don't Want Attorneys'

Detectives spent years hunting leads, witnesses and suspects in a SoHum slaying, but they may have crossed the line and jeopardized their case



Shortly after noon on Sept. 10, 2008, a San Francisco man named Reetpaul Singh Rana made one of his last phone calls. A marijuana broker by trade, Rana regularly made the drive up to Humboldt County to purchase pounds of weed that he'd take back to the city, package and send to places where less saturated markets dictated a higher price. The call he placed, according to court documents, was to a buyer in Minnesota — a regular customer of Rana's — who'd sent him $12,600 via Fed Ex two days earlier, expecting to receive three pounds of marijuana in return.

Rana told the man in Minnesota that he was "up north" in a hotel room with his dog, a three-legged black mutt named Rosa Barks, and that his suppliers wanted to meet him "out in the hills." Nine hours later, Rana's light blue 1996 Saab was found about 100 miles north, in a turnout along U.S. Highway 101 near Big Lagoon, engulfed in flames. Police traced the car's registration to Rana and dug up a phone number. There was no answer.

Three days later, a married couple walking in the hills of Southern Humboldt along Dyerville Loop Road, north of Alderpoint Road, came across a decomposing body lying in the dirt. Rosa was waiting nearby. Later that week, the Humboldt County Coroner's Office used fingerprints to confirm the body was in fact that of the 35-year-old former journalist.

By Sept. 18, 2008, when the coroner's office publicly identified Rana as the victim, saying he died of multiple gunshot wounds, Humboldt County Sheriff's detectives were already deep into the case. The day before, according to court documents, they'd served a search warrant on Rana's San Francisco apartment, where they found pay-owe sheets and a number of discarded Fed Ex receipts indicating he'd sent a number of three-to-four-pound packages to Minnesota and received a number of two-pound packages in return. They'd also pulled Rana's cell phone records. In addition to calling his buyer, detectives found Rana had made one other call that afternoon; it was to a phone being used by Ryan Carroll.

It was about a month later that detectives Sheryl Franco and Wayne Hanson finally caught up with Carroll, rousing him from bed at his girlfriend's parents' home in Lynnwood, Washington, at about 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. At the detectives urging, Carroll agreed to go with them down to the local police department to answer some questions. After searching Carroll for weapons, the detectives put him in their car and drove him down to the station, where they escorted him into a 6-by-6-foot, windowless room and began questioning him.

Over the next eight hours, Carroll offered varying stories. First, he said he had pooled his money with Rana and the pair planned to purchase marijuana from someone they knew only as "Ghost." Rana went off to buy the marijuana but never returned, Carroll said, adding that he figured either he or Rana had been "ripped off," according to court records. Then Carroll conceded he'd been at the scene with Rana and another man named "Johny," waiting for "Ghost" to arrive and sell them marijuana. The three were standing next to Rana's Saab, Carroll said, when Rana suddenly fell into him, covering him with blood. Carroll said he fled the scene on foot and believed a biker gang may have been involved. Pressed further, Carroll admitted to fleeing in Rana's car. Then came the third and final version: The three went to an area of Dyerville Loop Road and were smoking a joint when Carroll heard a gunshot and saw Rana fall. Carroll then took off in Rana's car, dumping some of the dead man's possessions in Garberville, saying he hoped they'd be found and turned in to the police, before driving north and burning Rana's car near Big Lagoon and hitchhiking home to Washington.

Roughly a year after the interview, detectives got a warrant for Carroll's arrest and took him into custody in January of 2010.

But the investigation didn't stop there. Relying on autopsy results that indicated Rana had been shot almost simultaneously from different angles by high velocity rounds, Franco and Hanson believed someone else had been involved in the shooting. So the pair continued traveling the country, trying to track down a host of transient witnesses who had passed through Southern Humboldt County in the summer and early fall of 2008.

That search led them to Brattleboro, Vermont, and on the morning of Oct. 18, 2011, to the doorstep of the hotel room that Robert "Roots" Lee called home with his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter. Like Carroll, Lee agreed to accompany the pair to a local police station to answer some questions. He was searched for weapons and put into a car. "Am I going to need a lawyer for anything?" Lee asked the detectives, according to court documents.

"I don't think so," Franco replied.

At the station, the detectives interviewed Lee for two hours, during which he made a number of incriminating statements, though court documents don't specify what they were. At various points in the interview, Lee seemed uncomfortable with the questioning and asked if he needed an attorney. "If you guys are asking about a homicide, I'd like to have a lawyer with me that way I don't incriminate anybody or myself," he said at one point. "I want to know what I'm legally required to say." Hanson responded by telling Lee that the detectives would give him a ride home when they finished speaking to him, according to the court documents.

The interrogation ended when Lee put his foot down: "I think at this point, if you guys come this far, I want a lawyer."

Hanson tried once more to keep Lee talking, telling him: "Innocent people don't want attorneys. They talk to detectives."

The pair kept questioning Lee, but he stopped talking, effectively ending the interview. It seems the detectives had already gotten much of what they came for. That night, they called colleagues in Humboldt County and asked them to prepare an arrest warrant for Lee. The following day he was taken into custody on suspicion of murder.

Late last month, almost four years after Lee's arrest, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that Franco and Hanson violated Lee and Carroll's rights in those interrogation rooms. Both men's statements to detectives will be inadmissible in the murder trial slated to start later this year. This will make the prosecutors' task of bringing Reetpaul Singh Rana's alleged killers to justice a whole lot harder.

Even in the high-stakes, lightning-rod world of the United States Supreme Court, there have been few cases as controversial as Miranda v. Arizona. A low-level ex-convict, Ernesto Miranda was living in Phoenix, working as a laborer on a produce company's night loading dock, when, in March of 1963, he became a suspect in the kidnapping and rape of a 17-year-old girl.

Miranda was arrested and taken down to the local police station, where he was questioned about the crime. After two hours of interrogation, Miranda not only confessed but also signed a written confession, with the words "this statement has been made voluntarily and of my own free will, with no threats, coercion or promises of immunity and with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make can and will be used against me." With little fanfare, Miranda was convicted of rape and kidnapping and sentenced to a minimum of 40 years in prison. But Miranda's attorney, Alvin Moore, argued that his client was not informed of his rights to have an attorney present during questioning and to remain silent, and Moore appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

In June, 1966, the court ruled 5-4 in Miranda's favor, with then Chief Justice Earl Warren penning the landmark majority opinion, which included the clause:

"The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him."

While Miranda's name went on to become a verb, synonymous with the warning that many Americans have committed to memory, the case did little to change his life. Miranda, the man, was retried in Arizona and convicted, even without his confession, and sentenced to serve decades in state prison. After his release, he made a brief living selling autographed police-issued Miranda warning cards before he was stabbed to death in a Phoenix bar fight.

But Miranda's case caused a sea change in American law enforcement, a fact underscored by decades of efforts by police and law-and-order activists to repeal or undercut the ruling. One of the chief criticisms of the Miranda ruling, as articulated by former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, was that it made sure poor, unsophisticated criminal defendants were just as aware of incriminating themselves as rich, sophisticated defendants, making it harder to convict the guilty.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the national police clearance rate ( the percentage of reported crimes lead to criminal charges filed) for violent crimes was about 63 percent in the decade leading up to the Miranda decision. Since, it's dropped to about 45 percent.

While the landmark decision may have made life a bit more complicated for police, it fell short of providing the clarity Justice Warren envisioned. Since 1966, the Supreme Court has issued 55 decisions on Miranda issues. Fourteen of those have attempted to clarify the meaning of "custody," with the court finally conceding that the task of defining the term is a "slippery one" in its ruling in the case of Oregon v. Estad.

In most cases, Miranda issues are quite clear. Someone's arrested and, with no prompting, police must advise him or her of Miranda rights prior to questioning, leaving little gray area. But, when an official arrest hasn't occurred and investigators are interviewing a suspect, the issue gets cloudy.

Gary Sokolow, a former prosecutor and defense attorney who's now a professor of the administration of justice and police academy instructor at College of the Redwoods, says the law has settled on the reasonable person standard to define when someone's in custody. "The question is, would a reasonable person feel they're free to leave (the interrogation)?" Sokolow says, adding that if the answer's yes, the person isn't in custody and doesn't need to be advised of their Miranda rights. "It's one of the harder pencil and paper exams (for my students) because it gets so squishy."

Complicating things, Sokolow says, is that some investigators are reticent to give Miranda warnings unless they're required by law because the warning itself — which crime television shows have now made ubiquitous and synonymous with arrest — can drastically change the tone and course of an interrogation. "It immediately signals that you're the subject of an investigation and, darn right, we're going to use what you say against you," Sokolow says.

The issue can get shrouded in so many layers of murk that some police departments — like the Baltimore Police Department — simply require investigators to not only issue Miranda warnings but also have interview subjects sign off on an advisory card — making clear they understand the rights they are giving up by talking — prior to conducting any interviews at a police station.

But many suspects will agree to talk even after a Miranda advisement, Sokolow said, though it rarely seems to turn out in their best interest. "I don't know why — I'm not a psychologist," Sokolow says. "But there's a significant amount of people in San Quentin and other penitentiaries whose intelligence is somewhere to the left of a General Electric lightbulb. They're not very smart, or, to put it more generously, they're overly optimistic."

When detectives Franco and Hanson arrived at Carroll's home on Oct. 16, 2008, it's clear they were trying to keep the situation as informal as possible, telling the suspect they just wanted to "chit chat" with him and would give him a ride home when finished.

But it's also clear the detectives wanted to control the interview and wanted Carroll to know they were in control. Both were armed with handguns that were visible to Carroll, and another cop stood watch outside the interview room to keep Carroll from doing any "unauthorized wandering," according to the court documents. Carroll went from being asleep at his home to being interviewed at a local police station in the course of about a half an hour. While Hanson and Franco offered him coffee, he wasn't offered food until six hours after arriving at the police station.

The tone of the interview steadily escalated from the first minutes when Hanson told Carroll that he didn't care if he was selling marijuana, joking that George W. Bush would give him amnesty for that crime, and that the detectives were only there that day to find the truth about what happened to Rana.

Throughout the first hours of the interview, Carroll repeatedly expressed doubt about talking to the detectives, but the detectives shrugged the statements off and kept questioning. When he suggested he'd follow his girlfriend's advice and talk to an attorney, the detectives asked: "Do you feel like you did something that you could be in trouble for?" When he answered no, Franco said "If you didn't do anything to be in trouble for, you have no worries," and the pair kept questioning.

After two hours of questioning, the detectives took a break to interview another potential witness, leaving Carroll in the police station lobby, where he was watched by a local officer. When the three returned to the interview room, Carroll told the detectives that he was "real tired and confused."

There are no laws preventing police from using deception and outright lies when interrogating suspects. Deploying emotional appeals, harshly confronting suspects with evidence, using an understanding tone to gain trust, making promises of leniency and even making statements that condone a suspect's criminal behavior — these tactics are all fair play in the interview room, according to police procedure experts, and Hanson and Franco used them all.

At one point, Franco told Carroll she and Hanson were on his side. At another, she implored Carroll to stop with the lies. And, later, when Carroll said he fled the scene on foot after Rana was shot, Franco told him: "I want you to understand that if you took Reet's car and boogied the hell out of there, I would not blame you."

Throughout the course of the interrogation, according to court documents, Carroll repeatedly broke down in tears, said he just wanted to go hang out with his girlfriend and made reference to his bipolar disorder. He seemed to deteriorate over the course of the interrogation.

In determining whether Franco and Hanson had a legal obligation to inform Carroll of his Miranda rights, federal Judge Edward Chen explains that there are five factors used to determine if a suspect is in custody and subject to Miranda protections: the language used to summon the individual to the interview; the extent to which the individual is confronted with evidence of guilt; the physical surroundings of the interrogation; the duration of the detention; and the degree of pressure applied to detain the individual.

In Carroll's case, Chen explains in his ruling, the factors are split. In the first part of the interview — the two-and-a-half hours before they took a break — Chen says the balance tilts to a finding that a reasonable person in the same situation would have felt free to leave. The detectives asked Carroll to come down and answer some questions, made clear he wasn't under arrest, didn't confront him with any real evidence of his guilt and told him he could leave if he wanted. Those factors, Chen says, all outweigh that the interview took place in a small, locked room within a police station and that it lasted more than 180 minutes. But the afternoon session was different, Chen explains, as the detectives were accusatory and confronted Carroll with evidence of guilt, didn't remind him he was free to leave and kept questioning him for four more hours. "Furthermore, Carroll was deprived of food from his waking hour of 9 o'clock in the morning to three o'clock in the afternoon," Chen writes, ruling that the entirety of Carroll's statements in the second interview session cannot be used against him at trial.

There's less detail about the particulars of Lee's interview with Franco and Hanson, but the court documents indicate he was strongly confronted with evidence of his involvement in Rana's killing — including phone records and other witness statements — and that he repeatedly questioned whether he needed an attorney, at one point stating: "I want to know what I'm legally required to say."

In his ruling, Chen states that the tone of the interrogation was such that, at one point, Lee told the detectives: "It feels like you guys want to arrest me." The judge also points out that the detectives implied "a significant level of control over Lee's ability to leave" the interview, repeatedly telling him that they would give him a ride home after they were done talking to him. The totality of the circumstances, Chen states, indicates Lee should have been Mirandized. The judge closes his ruling with a harsh critique of Hanson and Franco's conduct during the interview when Lee brought up his desire to talk to an attorney: "The tactics of Detectives Hanson ('innocent people don't want attorneys') and Franco are classic examples of what police should NOT do when the subject of an interrogation asks for counsel."

The United States Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case, has appealed Chen's rulings.

When a case goes to trial, confessions are prosecutorial gold, says Sokolow. "The probative value is just so high," he says.

Even partial confessions, like Carroll's admission that he was at the scene of Rana's killing, are immensely valuable, according to Sokolow, as every detail admitted by a defendant is one less thing a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. And if a defendant offers evolving stories as to his or her involvement or alibi, that gives a prosecutor lots of ammunition to get the jury thinking about just why that story changed so many times. "It just makes the burden so much easier," Sokolow said.

So where does all this leave the case against Carroll and Lee? Prosecutors have plenty of other evidence. There's physical evidence taken from the scene of Rana's death and from his car. And there are witness statements. According to court documents, there's a witness account of seeing Lee with a rifle of the same caliber used to kill Rana. There's a witness who reportedly told police that Lee told him that he and Carroll had tried to rob Rana and a fight ensued, during which Carroll shot Rana. There's reportedly another witness who told police that Lee said he and Carroll had hatched a plan to get some marijuana to sell to "a San Francisco man" and that if they couldn't find any pot, they would just rob the guy instead.

But, by the time of trial, this case will be seven years old, and witness accounts generally only lose clarity and credibility over time. There's simply no disputing that, if Chen's ruling stands, the prosecution's job becomes a lot more difficult.

For his part, Hanson says he's disappointed with Chen's decision and feels he and Franco did nothing wrong. Hanson says he still remembers talking to Rana's mother and father, and how grief stricken they were over the death of their son, who graduated from Oregon's Reed College in 1996 and later earned a masters in journalism from New York University before working for string of newspapers.

"We do the things we need to do to arrest people who killed loved ones," Hanson says. "Hopefully, they're held accountable. Of course, this weakens the case, but there's still evidence and witnesses enough to go forward."

Carroll's attorney, Severa Keith, says it rankles her that some people trivialize Miranda issues and that, if she's successful in exonerating her client, some will say he got off on a technicality. "Every time people are talking about these technicalities, they're actually talking about our constitution," she says. "That's what Miranda is: It's our Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. It's not a technicality."

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