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09/17/96 STATE DELAWARE v. BRIAN STECKEL

September 17, 1996

STATE OF DELAWARE,
v.
BRIAN STECKEL, DEFENDANT. ID NO: 9409002147



Judge William C. Carpenter, Jr.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carpenter

Motion to Suppress

Motion to Sever Count XIV

CARPENTER, J.

I. Introduction

This is the Court's opinion regarding two outstanding pretrial motions pending resolution in this case. *fn1 On July 3, 1996, the defendant filed a Motion to Suppress various statements made by the defendant at the time of his arrest on September 3, 1994. The Court conducted a hearing on the issues presented in the Suppression Motion on August 29, 1996 and has given the parties an opportunity to file memoranda and case citations in support of their respective positions. Also on July 3, 1996, the defendant filed a Motion to Sever Count XIV of the indictment. The parties have also submitted legal memoranda on that issue and were provided the opportunity to orally supplement those arguments.

II. Motion to Suppress

A. Facts

On September 2, 1994 at approximately 12:20 p.m. a fire was reported at the Driftwood Club Apartments located at 125 Greenbank Road in the Prices Corner area of New Castle County. While extinguishing the flames, firemen discovered a deceased female located in apartment B2. The discovery lead to the involvement of the New Castle County Police Department in an attempt to discover the circumstances surrounding this death.

On the same day as the fire, an unknown male contacted reporters at The News Journal identifying himself as the individual who had committed the murder at the Driftwood Apartments and stated that his next victim would be a "Susan Gell." After verifying the existence of Ms. Gell in the New Castle County area, The News Journal notified the New Castle County Police Department and advised them of the phone call. They further agreed to record any subsequent contact made by the individual, should there be any.

By approximately 6:00 p.m., New Castle County Police were able to locate Susan Gell. Through a subsequent interview with her, they learned that she had been receiving harassing phone calls from an individual who had been identified as Brian Steckel. She provided the police with the address from which the calls had been made and advised them that an arrest warrant had been issued for Mr. Steckel as a result of this conduct.

Further investigation lead the police to believe that Mr. Steckel frequented bars located on Union Street in the City of Wilmington and thus a search of the area was conducted. At approximately 1:40 a.m. the next morning, September 3, 1994, Mr. Steckel was located by the police in an obviously intoxicated state and was transported to New Castle County Police Headquarters. At the time of his detention, Mr. Steckel was uncooperative and belligerent, provided the false name of Brian Edwards, and was found with a small quantity of marijuana in his clothing.

Realizing that the defendant was too intoxicated to be interviewed, the investigating officers decided to place Mr. Steckel in a holding cell until the following morning. Mr. Steckel resisted this action and a struggle ensued, requiring the officers to forcibly place him in the cell and remove his shoes and certain clothing, a policy intended to ensure the safety of the prisoner. Finally, by 2:30 a.m. Mr. Steckel was left to sleep off his intoxication.

At approximately 9:00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, September 3, 1994, the investigating officers returned to headquarters to interview the defendant. Since Detective Downs ("Downs") had less contact with the defendant during the struggle earlier that morning, it was decided that he would first approach the defendant. At 9:20 a.m. Downs went to the defendant's holding cell with a McDonald's breakfast to inquire if Mr. Steckel was willing to talk with them. Downs testified that in sharp contrast to the evening before, the defendant was awake, alert, calm, cooperative, and in his judgment no longer under the influence of alcohol. *fn2 The detective advised the defendant of his Miranda rights, told him he was under arrest for phone harassment and that the detective wanted to talk with him about a fire. Mr. Steckel indicated that he understood his rights and then inquired "is anyone dead?" After Downs confirmed that an individual had died in the fire, the defendant responded "so I killed her." Recognizing the significance of the information the defendant was willing to provide, Downs removed the defendant from the holding cell and escorted him to an interview room.

Unfortunately, as a result of a miscommunication between Downs and Detective Hitch ("Hitch"), the initial interview was not taped, even though the interview room was equipped with both audio and video recording capability. During this initial interview, which lasted approximately 15 to 20 minutes, the defendant admitted to strangling a female by the name of Sandy at the Driftwood Apartments and setting her apartment on fire. He further confessed to at least three additional murders, one in Delaware and two in other states. At this point in the interview Mr. Steckel requested to make a phone call. He was escorted by Downs to a phone area near the detective's office where he made an unsuccessful attempt to contact his mother and later called his sister. During this phone call, Downs was able to hear Mr. Steckel admit to his sister that he had killed someone, was in jail and stated "I strangled her." The conversation eventually turned abusive and thus was terminated. Fortunately this break also allowed Downs to alert Hitch of the interview and the need for it to be recorded. Thus, when Mr. Steckel was returned to the interview room at approximately 9:47 a.m., the audio and video recorders had been activated.

At this point Hitch joined the interview and the defendant was read his Miranda warnings for the second time. During this second interview, the details of the murder which the defendant again reiterated included: how he was able to enter the apartment; how he had planned the assault; how he had strangled the victim with a stocking; how he had set the apartment on fire; how he had sexually assaulted the victim; his involvement in other murders; his contact with The News Journal; and his contact with the individual who he identified to the newspaper as his next victim. This interview concluded at approximately 12:12 p.m.

The remainder of the afternoon of September 3, 1996 was utilized by the detectives to investigate the other murders that the defendant had described, to interview individuals that possibly had contact with the defendant, as well as to follow other leads generated from the defendant's alleged harassing phone calls prior to the murder. The officers were unable to confirm the existence of the other alleged murder in Delaware, and were advised by police in the Allentown, Pennsylvania area that they already had a suspect in custody who they were confident had committed the Pennsylvania murder described by Mr. Steckel. They also indicated that the murder had received significant media coverage due to the young age of the victim.

The police next contacted the defendant at approximately 6:30 p.m. in his holding cell at police headquarters because they wanted to obtain an impression of a bite mark on the defendant's finger caused by the victim. Hitch went to the cell intending to again bring the defendant to an interview room for the purpose of signing a consent search form for the procedure. At this point, the defendant asked Hitch "should I contact a lawyer?" to which the detective responded that it would be inappropriate for him to give Mr. Steckel legal advice, but it was certainly his right to contact a lawyer if he wished. On the way to the interview room the defendant was again allowed to use the phone. He first called his girlfriend and girlfriend's mother, both to no avail, and then successfully reached his mother and sister. There was no further Discussion about the reference to a lawyer by either the defendant or the officer. The defendant then indicated he was ready to talk again. After signing the consent search form, the defendant was confronted with the results of the investigation regarding the other murders and his prior contact with the victim. The defendant confessed that he had in fact murdered no one else, and further that he had no prior sexual contact with the victim. When asked why he had told the officers about these other events, the defendant responded that he was "all twisted up" at the time he made those statements. The officers immediately confirmed for a third time that he was aware of his Miranda rights and the defendant indicated that he was aware of his rights both during that present interview and at the earlier morning interview sessions. The interview concluded at 7:00 p.m. and the defendant was transported to a dentist office to have the bite impression made. Several additional statements were made by the defendant during the drive to the dentist which were also audio recorded.

After returning from the dentist office, the defendant was interviewed for a final time and given some soup for dinner. The investigating fire marshal was also present during that interview. Warrants were obtained for the seizure of the defendant's clothing, and Mr. Steckel's initial appearance before a Justice of the Peace occurred at 1:30 a.m. on September 4, 1994.

B. Discussion

The defendant asserts that the statements to the New Castle County Police during the 24 hours following his detention must be suppressed on two separate grounds. Mr. Steckel first contends that he was incapable of making a voluntary, knowing and intelligent waiver of the Miranda warnings at the time of the first interview due to the fact that he was still intoxicated or under the influence of some other substance. The defendant's second argument is that his right to counsel as guaranteed by the 5th Amendment was violated when the defendant inquired "should I get a lawyer?" just prior to the third interview. Both of these arguments will be addressed seriatim.

C. The Waiver Argument

The defendant's first argument involves the question of whether he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of his initial interview with New Castle County detectives on the morning of September 3, 1996. Mr. Steckel argues that he was still intoxicated from the previous night, and did not know what he was saying during the initial interview with Downs. The defendant thus contends that he was unable to make a knowing, voluntary and intelligent waiver of the Miranda warnings. *fn3 The State asserts that the circumstances surrounding the arrest and detention of Mr. Steckel indicate that he was in fact competent to make a valid waiver of his rights.

It is without question that the Miranda warnings serve the invaluable purpose of providing a defendant with notice of his privilege against self-incrimination and right to counsel. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 468-69, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694, 86 S. Ct. 1602 (1966). Accordingly, when a defendant seeks to waive those safeguards the law requires that waiver to be knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently given. Howard v. State, Del. Supr., 458 A.2d 1180, 1183 (1983). It is the State's burden to demonstrate not only that Mr. Steckel agreed to waive his rights, but also that the alleged waiver of the Miranda warnings comports with that standard. Id. The Court must review these issues under the "totality of the circumstances including the behavior of the interrogators, the conduct of the defendant, . . . and all other pertinent factors." Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 227, 36 L. Ed. 2d 854, 93 S. Ct. ...


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