Just between us, watch what you say
Mark Tremblay is, by all accounts, a reasonably intelligent family man who works two jobs, including installing “kill switches” in police cars. A 5-2 majority opinion by the state’s highest court says that only helped justices solidify their position when they upheld his conviction for burning a neighbor’s boat in Chelmsford, a conviction based on an inflammatory anti-gay screed that prosecutors say showed motive but that Tremblay thought was “off the record” during an interview with police investigating the 2002 arson.
The decision by the Supreme Judicial Court, which has in the past tossed convictions because of a variety of acts of perceived police and prosecutorial malfeasance, upholds investigators’ limited ability to use “deception or trickery” as long as they don’t violate a suspect’s constitutional rights against making involuntary self-incriminating statements.
The case involved a State Police arson investigation of a boat belonging to a man who lived across the street from Tremblay on a lake in Chelmsford. The victim, whom the SJC gave the pseudonym Harold Nelson, said he was in bed shortly before midnight when his 20-foot boat burst into flames on a trailer across the street from his home.
After interviewing guests that were at a party at Tremblay’s house, troopers zeroed in on Tremblay as a suspect, although they never detained him or put him under arrest, foregoing the need for a Miranda warning of his rights, according to the SJC.
Tremblay signed a semi-watered down version of his interview and that’s when troopers turned on him and said he was the main target and he best come clean. About a month later, Tremblay was indicted and convicted, and his lawyers appealed, saying the statements should not have been admitted. From the motion judge on up, Tremblay’s appeal was denied. But the SJC majority never defined what and when an “off the record” discussion can be used, saying Tremblay’s statements were neither involuntary nor coerced. Despite never dealing with law enforcement before, the justices upheld the lower court ruling that Tremblay was “savvy enough” to know he was talking with police investigating a crime.
The minority opinion, written by Associate Justice Ralph Gants and joined by Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, offered a definition of “off the record” and said using the statements Tremblay made was akin to violating a suspect’s Miranda rights.
“The misrepresentation at issue here – false promises that a statement will not be used against the suspect – casts as much substantial doubt on the voluntariness of the statement as false promises of leniency and false representations regarding the defendant’s right to defend himself at trial,” Grant writes.
It’s a tricky subject, this off the record thing, and one that we often struggle with in the media. What does it mean to whom and what is the difference between “off the record” and “for background?” Ask Sarah Palin about her “just between us girls” chat with Katie Couric.
So here’s some advice to criminal suspects and media subjects: We’re all just doing our job so make sure of the ground rules — or watch your mouth.
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The Boston School Committee approved two new in-district charter schools, the Globe reports.
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A Northborough man was charged with drunken driving Tuesday after he crashed his snowmobile into a telephone pole. Fill in your own comment.
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