Supreme Court hears first-degree murder conviction appeal

A lawyer appealing a Nebraska man's first-degree murder conviction alleged a Miranda rights violation among other charges before federal judges Wednesday, Oct. 26.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case of 34-year-old Niobrara man Shanon R. Thomas, who was found guilty last December in the shooting death of his former girlfriend, 46-year-old Dawn Starlin of Santee, Neb.

The case was one of three that a three-judge panel heard in the courtroom at the University of South Dakota School of Law that morning.

Shannon P. O'Connor, first assistant federal public defender, District of Nebraska, said two FBI agents and the chief of police for the Santee Tribe met with Thomas at the home of Thomas' mother after the death of Starlin.

O'Connor said that when the authorities arrived, Thomas told them, "You're looking for me. Let's go."

Instead, O'Connor said the agents began asking Thomas specific interrogation questions, such as, "Why did you do it?" and "Were you drinking?"

Thomas then began to answer the questions without having been informed of his Miranda rights.

"A person would not feel they can turn down the questions," O'Connor said, further stating that Thomas himself had made it known where he was through a friend so that the authorities could come arrest him.

"He did not invite them over for an interrogation," O'Connor said.

Michael P. Norris, assistant U.S. attorney, District of Nebraska, said the fact that Thomas let the law enforcement officials into the residence and made a confession before them "speaks to the voluntariness of that instance."

Norris said the failure of the authorities to inform Thomas of his Miranda rights before they asked their initial questions was not deliberate, and that Thomas was informed of them before an interrogation at the police station shortly thereafter.

At that time, Thomas told the authorities he was aware of his rights, and commenced to give a narrative of what happened that lasted "about 20 minutes," Norris said.

Judge C. Arlen Beam asked O'Connor how the incident between Thomas and the authorities was different than what is referred to as a "knock and talk," which is when a police officer can ask someone any number of questions as long as the officer does not break the threshold of the residence.

O'Connor said this was different than a "knock and talk" in that Thomas said, "I'm not here to talk – I'm here to turn myself in."

Norris disagreed, saying, "You don't have the right to be arrested because you want to be arrested at that time."

He further stated that the matter was given an extensive hearing before a magistrate judge, the conclusion of which was that the meeting between Thomas and the authorities was non-custodial and a Miranda warning was not required.

Beam asked Norris if the finding was incorrect and that warning should have been given, would that have an effect on Thomas' 20-minute confession.

"I don't think it does anything," Norris replied.

Thomas currently is serving a life sentence. Along with first-degree murder, he was found guilty of the discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

At his trial, Thomas moved for a judgment of acquittal at the end of the government's case and again at the close of his defense. Both motions were denied.

Tom Sorensen, associate dean for the USD Law School, was quoted last week as saying that no firm decisions on any of the cases will be made at this time.

A final decision will be handed down at a later date.

Summaries of all three cases heard last Wednesday are available at www.usd.edu/law/upload/Case-Synopses.pdf.

– Randy Dockendorf contributed to this report.

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