The Miranda Decision: Justice and Poetic Justice

Shakespeare’s admonition that some men have greatness — or at least fame — “thrust upon them” would certainly seem to apply to Ernesto Miranda, a career criminal who in 1963, while in Phoenix, Arizona, was arrested for armed robbery and the rape of an 18-year old retarded girl.  After a lengthy police interrogation, Miranda signed a confession to both crimes, and was subsequently found guilty.

In repeated appeals, however, his lawyers argued that Miranda had not known when he confessed that he had a Constitutional right against self-incrimination, and three years later the case Miranda vs. Arizona was argued before the Supreme Court. This week (June 13) in 1966, the court’s landmark, and controversial, 5-4 decision was handed down.

The court ruled that Miranda’s confession was obtained illegally and therefore his conviction was overturned.  Noting that the right to refrain from self-incrimination rests in the 5th Amendment, the court said that this “guarantees to the individual the right to remain silent unless he chooses to speak in the unfettered exercise of his own will.”  Such a choice, the court added, may be made only after he has been informed that it is not compulsory, and after he has been informed that he may first consult with an attorney, who may be present during any interrogation.

From all of this “legalese” came what is now famously known as the “Miranda Warning.”  If you are ever arrested, the arresting officer must first advise you that “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning.”  The only exceptions are questions related to establishing your identity, such as your name and date of birth.

Today, of course, the Miranda decision is among the most famous in our history and has probably sparked more debates about civil liberties than any other Supreme Court decision.

Which brings us to the story of Ernesto Miranda himself. Although his original confession was ruled inadmissible and his 1963 conviction was overturned, by 1966 new evidence conclusively linking Miranda to the robbery and rape was found, and he was again convicted in a new trial.  Even more interesting, after spending 11 years in jail, Miranda was released on parole, whereupon he promptly got in a barroom brawl and was stabbed to death.  A prime suspect was arrested, but after being informed of his Miranda rights, he chose to remain silent and was released. To this day, no one has been charged with Miranda’s killing.

Meaning that, in the case of Ernesto Miranda, justice was finally served — as was, in a way, poetic justice.