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Sunday, December 26, 2004

Editorial from The Chapel Hill News on Dalzell Arrest

Published: Dec 23, 2004
Case may teeter on Miranda rights

Superior Court Judge Wade Barber has a distressing decision to make on Jan. 10. Before him is a defendant who confessed to a murder, even disclosing where he disposed of the body. But also before him is a strong argument that the confession should be suppressed.

The case is a heartbreaker. After seven years of suspecting Andrew Douglas Dalzell in the 1997 disappearance of Deborah Leigh Key, who was last seen with Dalzell, Carrboro police had a warrant to arrest him. But not on a charge of murder; Dalzell had been charged with stealing merchandise from a hobby store where he had worked.

Yet, in the patrol car that transported him from Lincoln County, where he was picked up, to Carrboro, Dalzell had laid out before him a fake warrant for his arrest for murder. And an officer read to him a letter purportedly from the district attorney's office stating that he would face the death penalty unless he disclosed the location of the body.

In addition, Dalzell was encouraged by police in the patrol car to "tell the truth about whatever happened" and "be a man and let the demon go."

Under those conditions, Dalzell confessed to killing Key and taking her body to Wilmington.

Judging from the comments of other police chiefs and Carrboro Chief Carolyn Hutchison, using fake documents and making false statements are acceptable police procedure, although some legal experts say the particular ones used in this case skirt the edge of acceptability.

The more serious problem here is that Carrboro police -- in consultation, apparently, with District Attorney Carl Fox -- may have too narrowly defined what constitutes interrogation. They did not read Dalzell his Miranda right until after they arrived at the police station -- after the three-hour ride in the patrol car and after Dalzell confessed.

The case for suppression may hinge on that detail.

Interrogation does not require a sentence with a question mark at the end. The courts have found that interrogation can be any action reasonably designed to elicit a response -- a gesture, a look, a circumstance, false documents.

The fake warrant, the fake letter alone could be seen as designed to elicit a response, not to mention the officer's urging Dalzell tell the truth, to "let the demon go."

The Carrboro police clearly believed they were engaging in sound police work and should be able to take pride in solving the

7-year-old case and bringing closure to Key's family and the many friends who have been haunted by her mysterious disappearance.

But did they risk too much by waiting to Mirandize their suspect before letting the ruse they had devised do its work? Would having heard those words most of us know by heart from TV shows have prevented Dalzell from letting go of his demons?

Sadly, we fear the answer to the first question is yes, and to the second, no.

The fake documents, apparently, moved him to confess and to disclose where he disposed of the body. Having heard at the start of that long ride in the patrol car that he could remain silent and was entitled to a lawyer probably would have had little impact on his emotional state or his decision to talk.

It's also disturbing that District Attorney Fox has stated that it is not his duty to advise police on arrest procedures. Carrboro police consulted with him; he has said he was aware of their plans to use the fake document and to delay reading Dalzell his rights. Doesn't that imply they were seeking his input on how to build a case that would hold up in court?

It seems clear that the ruse was carefully planned with Fox and the police chief and was carried out with every expectation that the scheme was within the realm of sound police and legal practice.

The case presents a terrible dilemma: It may be that in order to protect the rights of everyone, a man who has confessed to murder is set free.

Justice, unfortunately, isn't always right.


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