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Mentally impaired man’s confession not voluntary

By: Denise M. Champagne//November 19, 2014

Mentally impaired man’s confession not voluntary

By: Denise M. Champagne//November 19, 2014//

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A Cayuga County man’s limited mental capacity to fully understand the impacts of waiving his  Miranda rights and police interrogation tactics deemed coercive because of that prevented him from intelligently and voluntarily waiving those rights, an appeals court ruled Friday.

Allegations included raping a 3-year-old girl.

The Appellate Division, Fourth Department unanimously threw out all but four of 18 counts against Robert M. Knapp, 39, formerly of Locke, suppressed his statements and ordered a new trial on the four remaining counts: First-degree sexual abuse, third-degree aggravated sexual abuse and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

“I just think this case is one for the books,” said Moravia attorney Charles A. Marangola who represented Knapp on appeal. “I think it was a good decision. We have to protect the rights of people with mental challenges and this decision goes a long way in doing so.”

Christopher T. Valdina, Cayuga County chief assistant district attorney, said the district attorney’s office will seek leave to the Court of Appeals.

“We’re obviously very disappointed that this was the outcome,” he said. “This was a terrible case. We respectively disagree with the outcome and their version of the facts.”

Valdina said this was not a case where the perpetrator was a stranger and there were identity issues. He said Knapp was immediately caught, with his pants down, and confessed.

Knapp, who has an IQ of 68, was convicted in 2012 of several counts including first-degree rape and sexually abusing the girl and two other children, ages 4 and 6.

Knapp, according to the decision, was living with a friend and her two children at the time. About two years after he moved in, the friend walked into Knapp’s portion of their trailer and found her daughter with her paints down and Knapp sitting on his bed in his boxer shorts with a blanket partially covering his lap. The mother testified the child told her Knapp had touched her “tu-tu,” the girl’s term for her vagina.

Knapp allegedly told police he engaged in several sexual acts with the child on a regular basis from September 2010 until his arrest on Oct. 26, 2010.

He was later charged under a separate indictment with second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child and endangering the welfare of a child in connection with alleged sexual acts with the two older children between October 2008 and October 2010. The two indictments were eventually combined over Knapp’s objection.

Marangola said Knapp has always denied the charges. The decision notes there was no physical evidence to support many of the more serious counts, which were dismissed. Assisting Marangola on the appeal was attorney Adam Van Buskirk, who represented Knapp at trial.

“He’s a young attorney,” Marangola said of Van Buskirk. “Without him doing his job at the trial level, this case would have been very difficult in the appeal. He made the right motions at the right time and asked the right questions to protect his client’s rights.”

Before trial, Van Buskirk moved to suppress Knapp’s statements on the grounds that he lacked the capacity to knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights and that his mental limitations, combined with the police interrogation tactics, rendered his confession involuntary.

A report from a defense psychiatrist indicated Knapp was not capable of intelligently waiving his rights and that he was “a suggestible and overly compliant individual,” meaning he could be easily influenced by suggestions.

At a hearing to determine the admissibility of Knapp’s statements, the prosecution’s forensic expert psychiatrist testified Knapp was able to understand the words of the Miranda warning, but not capable of intelligently waiving those rights.

Cayuga County Court Judge Mark H. Fandrich found there was “no evidence of mental retardation so great as to render [Knapp] completely incapable of understanding the meaning and effect of the confession” and denied his request to suppress the statements.

“A suspect of ‘subnormal intelligence’ may effectively waive his or her Miranda rights ‘so long as it is established that he or she understood the immediate meaning of the warnings,’” says the 10-page decision authored by Justice Erin M. Peradotto, citing People v. Williams, 62 NY2d 285. “The critical question is ‘whether a defendant’s will was overborne’ by the circumstances surrounding the giving of a confession,’” Dickerson v. United States, 530 US 428.

Also on the panel were Justice Nancy E. Smith, presiding, and Justices Joseph D. Valentino, Gerald J. Whalen and Brian F. DeJoseph.

Having seen a video of the interrogation, they found the people failed to prove Knapp intelligently waived his rights, based on testimony of his limited intellectual capacity, as well as the rapid fashion in which the Miranda warnings were read to Knapp and the fact he was handed a waiver statement to sign, already filled in with his responses.

“Significantly, the detective never asked defendant whether he could read or write and did not inquire about defendant’s level of education,” Peradotto wrote. “The defense expert concluded that defendant ‘could not read his [Miranda] [r]ights on his own because of his third-grade reading level.’ Indeed, even the people’s expert acknowledged that the detective ‘didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the Miranda rights.’”

The panel also found Knapp did not voluntarily waive his rights; that even though the manner of questioning may have been permissible under ordinary circumstances, it could be coercive and impair the voluntariness of a statement by people “who are mentally ill or mentally retarded,” United States v. Preston, 751 F3d 1008.

It found the remaining counts in the two indictments were supported by legally sufficient evidence and ordered a new trial on those counts.

Valdina said the decision left out some facts, such as Knapp making a comment during recitation of his Miranda warning, about how the evidence could be used to incriminate him, indicating he understood the process. He also noted Knapp was able to drive a car and maintain a bank account.

Valdina said Knapp also denied several allegations, refuting the decision classifying him as a “yea sayer,” easily intimated by the interrogation process, parroting back the detective’s statements in his response and telling police what he thought they wanted to hear.

In addition, Valdina said although DNA evidence on the child’s shirt was not conclusive, that Knapp was the only adult male in the house. He said Knapp admitted to sexual intercourse and other acts.

“We don’t agree with the characterization he was coerced,” Valdina said. “If he’s going to say what he thinks the detective wants to hear, why would he deny anything?”

Knapp, who was sentenced to 57 years in state prison, is housed at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County. Marangola said as a result of the decision, he will be brought back to Cayuga County for a bail hearing on the remaining counts.

The remaining top counts, first-degree sexual abuse and third-degree aggravated sexual abuse, are Class D felonies, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Endangering the welfare of a child is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail.

Marangola said Knapp has already been incarcerated for more than four years since his arrest in October 2010.

Valdina said the district attorney’s office will ask the judge to stay any further proceedings, pending a decision from the Court of Appeals.

“We think we have an argument why this was an incorrect outcome and we’ll try to advance that and move accordingly at the Court of Appeals,” he said.

If that request is denied, he said they will proceed with the remaining evidence which includes testimony of the mother who allegedly found Knapp and the girl.

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