Court Says Harmless Error for Police to Question Tired and Drugged Suspect

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 28, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Finding only harmless error, a federal appeals court affirmed a second-degree murder conviction of a man who said police questioned him while he was "sick and exhausted."

The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of Terrance C. Jackson three years to the day after he stabbed a man to death during an argument. Although Jackson asked for a lawyer after his arrest, officers continued to question him in United States of America v. Jackson.

"Given the very limited nature of the questions asked by the officers regarding Jackson's health, we conclude that they were not 'reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect,'" Judge Jane Kelly wrote for the appeals court. "Moreover, because Jackson voluntarily disclosed that he had been awake for several days and using drugs, the agents' follow-up questions regarding his health do not constitute an interrogation."

History of Violence

On March 27, 2014, Jackson was driving his pickup truck with his cousin when he saw Gerald Smith and his friend picking up trash on the side of the road. Jackson pulled over, got out of the truck and approached Smith.

The two men had a violent history between them, Smith having stabbed Jackson in a fight when they were teenagers and having pulled a gun on him a few days earlier. As the men fought in the street, Jackson pulled out a knife.

Jackson slashed Smith, who stumbled, fell to the ground and died on the side of the road. It was not the first or most notorious killing on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, but as sad as any death in the New Town community of 2,000 people.

Self-Defense Rejected

Jackson sobbed out loud, "I think I killed him," as he and his cousin drove off. Police found Jackson hiding at his girlfriend's house and began questioning him. He said he hadn't slept in days, that he had been using meth and that he couldn't remember anything.

At trial, Jackson admitted that he stabbed Smith but argued that he acted in self-defense. Eye witnesses and others supported the prosecution version of the fight.

On appeal, Jackson said the trial court erred by allowing jurors to hear his statements to police about his drug use and other comments. The appeals court ruled it was harmless error.

"Notably, the jury heard that Jackson voluntarily revealed to officers that he had been using methamphetamine and had not slept," said Kelly, a former public defender who once was attacked and nearly killed herself. "Jackson's girlfriend and his cellmate also testified that Jackson was under the influence of methamphetamine on the day of the offense and did not remember what happened."

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