'Illiterate' Defendant Who Couldn't Understand the Word 'Attorney' Nonetheless Convicted
When 18-year-old Willi Adames was held by police in connection with a fatal shooting in June of 2008, he ostensibly waived his right to an attorney before giving a detailed, recorded statement implicating himself in the crime.
But it was obvious from the start that Adames was in over his head.
Functionally illiterate, with what the court characterized as "low intelligence," Adames was confused, court records show, about the most basic aspects of the criminal investigation process.
When he sat down with an assistant district attorney, for example, as first reported by the New York Law Journal, he was unable to understand the meaning of the term "attorney." An exchange between Adames and an assistant D.A. -- a prosecutor -- shows that he may have believed he was talking to a defense attorney. The difference, of course, is huge; a defense attorney would have been on his side, while the A.D.A. was paid to ensure he ended up in jail.
Despite Adames's obvious confusion, an A.D.A. in the Bronx went on to extract a confession from him.
A.D.A.: So do you -- do you understand that you have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police or me? Do you -- do you understand that?
DEFENDANT: What does that mean?
A.D.A.: That means that -- I know you asked to speak with me, and I'm here. I'm here now to speak with you.
A.D.A.: But you have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police or me.
DEFENDANT: What's an attorney is you [sic]. What's an attorney?
A.D.A.: I am an attorney.
A.D.A.: But you have the right to speak to a different attorney. Your own attorney, if you would like, before you speak to me.
DEFENDANT: I can do that?
A.D.A.: You can do that.
DEFENDANT: There's another one here?
A.D.A.: There is not another one here. The -- the -- practically speaking, if you want to speak to an attorney before speaking to me, we are not going to be able to have a conversation. We're not going to be able to talk now.
DEFENDANT: Oh. OK. So let's talk now. Let's -- to see if I could...
A.D.A.: But do you understand that --
DEFENDANT: Yes, miss.
A.D.A.: OK. Do you -- do you want an attorney now, or do you not want an attorney now and you would like to speak with me?
DEFENDANT: No, I will speak with you. It's all right.
A.D.A.: OK. Now, if you can't afford one, do you understand that one would be provided for you?
DEFENDANT: Oh. OK.
A.D.A.: So you're obviously -- you asked to speak with me so I assume that you have some questions for me. Right? You have questions for me?
DEFENDANT: No. It's OK. Go ahead answer [sic] your questions first.
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Adames was ultimately convicted of criminal possession of a weapon. But last week, a New York appeals court overturned that conviction, finding that Adames never fully understood his right to have an attorney present, and therefore couldn't have knowingly waived it. While the A.D.A. may have delivered the required Miranda warning -- that "you have the right to remain silent" spiel you've heard in the movies -- according to the court, Adames clearly hadn't grasped the importance of what he was giving up.
"Defendant did not understand the 'immediate import' of the Miranda warnings," the court wrote, "especially when considering the video statement which established defendant did not understand the word 'attorney' nor his right to consult an attorney before questioning.
"It is not clear that this 18-year-old defendant," the court went on, "with no prior criminal history, who could not read or write, ever understood his right to counsel nor the consequences of waiver."
The case has been sent back to a lower court for a new trial.
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