ST. PETERSBURG — Two detectives visited the Pinellas County Jail this week to interview a teenager accused of killing a St. Petersburg police officer, stoking an ongoing debate about when authorities can question suspects.
Nicholas Lemmon Lindsey, 16, was arrested Feb. 22 in the shooting death of Officer David Crawford. Police say Crawford had stopped Lindsey for questioning late at night and the teen suddenly opened fire. The murder weapon was never found, but police say Lindsey confessed to the killing after his family encouraged him to talk.
On Tuesday, two internal affairs officers tried to question Lindsey without notifying his lawyer, who was livid when he found out later in the day.
"The first thing out of their mouth was 'Where's the gun?' " said attorney Dyril Flanagan, who called the St. Petersburg Times to complain. "They snuck in there. You can't come in on a pending murder case and question my client."
The officers were not acting as criminal investigators, police spokesman Bill Proffitt said. They were conducting an internal affairs investigation, which is standard when officers discharge firearms, as Crawford did before he died. Such investigations not only involve potential discipline, but also training and procedure.
In any case, the officers deny asking Lindsey about the murder weapon, Proffitt said. Lindsey told the investigators to speak to his attorney and they left.
Flanagan was skeptical about the visit's motive. If Lindsey's initial confession should get thrown out in court, the gun would be crucial evidence.
"What questions could internal affairs ask that were not going to incriminate him?" Flanagan asked. "Nobody called me and if they had, I would have said, 'No.' "
The dispute centers on a suspect's right to have an attorney present at questioning, a legal area that sprung from the Miranda decision and continues to evolve.
In a 1981 case, an Arizona suspect asked to have an attorney and questioning stopped. But when police went to the jail the next day, he confessed. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all contact should have halted after the suspect initially asked for the attorney. Constant recontact amounted to wearing a suspect down, the court said.
Last year, the court narrowed that ruling in a Maryland case, where police had re-interviewed a suspect 21/2 years after he initially asked for an attorney. The second time around, he confessed to sexually abusing his son.
That police conduct was proper, the Supreme Court said, because so much time had passed. In fact, re-interviews can take place 14 days after a suspect leaves police custody.
Lindsey has remained in jail since his arrest, so the 14-day window had expired. Had he given any new details, Proffitt acknowledged, prosecutors could not have used them against him at trial. Police were okay with that because it was just an internal affairs investigation, he said.
When Lindsey was arrested, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office put a letter in his jail file warning police not to talk to him without his attorney, standard procedure in murder cases, Public Defender Bob Dillinger said.
"But cops still go in and talk to (clients) all the time," Dillinger said. "We don't think it's right, but they keep doing it. They say that if a client agrees, there's no harm."
Proffitt echoed that notion. Even with the public defender's letter, he said, "an individual could say, 'I am aware of the letter, but I don't mind talking to you.' People can invoke their rights, then step back and say, 'I don't mind talking.' But if they say no, we're gone."
In a rare split with police, Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett also criticized the visit. He has an ethical obligation not to talk to suspects represented by counsel, he said, and doesn't want investigators from his office talking to them either.
"It just didn't need to go down the way it did," Bartlett said. If internal affairs officers wanted shooting details, they could just listen to Lindsey's confession, he said.
"Now Dyril thinks we are trying to pull something fast on him and I can't say that I blame him," Bartlett said.