Defendant’s Use of Right to Silence Cannot be Used to Infer Guilt

Commonwealth v. Letkowski (2014)

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has reinforced the principle that a defendant’s use of his Miranda right to silence cannot be used to infer his guilt. In Letkowski, the defendant appealed a rape conviction, arguing that the trial judge had improperly admitted evidence that he invoked his right to silence after arrest.

Upon being read his Miranda rights, the defendant told police that he understood his rights and that he did not wish to speak with the police. However, after he was booked and fingerprinted, Letkowski reversed his decision and spoke with police.

During trial for the rape, the prosecutor brought in Letkowski’s initial refusal to speak with police three times. First, during a detective’s direct examination, the prosecutor asked whether the defendant changed his mind to remain silent before or after being fingerprinted. The prosecutor then built upon this when she asked an expert witness on cross-examination, “[I]s it not reasonable to assume that a person thinks [the police] might have my fingerprints, [so] I’m going to tell them my side of the story?”

In her closing argument, the prosecutor tied her two prior statements together by arguing that Letkowski changed his mind on remaining silent after being fingerprinted because he knew the police would find his fingerprints on items related to the rape. That, the prosecutor argued, made him “want to tell his side of the story.”

A person’s invocation of the right to silence cannot be used to imply guilt. Implicit in the Miranda warning is an assurance that “silence will carry no penalty,” as the court put it in an earlier case.

First, the court found it error when the prosecutor asked the detective about Letkowski’s post-booking silence. The State argued that the prosecutor was trying to prove that Letkowski was, in fact, read his Miranda rights. The court disagreed, stating that the defendant had not raised any issue about his Miranda rights, so the prosecutor had no legitimate reason to mention his silence.

The court then analyzed the prosecutor’s question to the expert witness. The court found there was no need, for either fairness or completeness, to include the defendant’s post-booking silence. The question could have been phrased to ask whether any person—regardless of whether he had already spoken to police—might choose to speak with police after being fingerprinted.

It was also error for the prosecutor to bring in Letkowski’s initial silence during closing argument because she tied it directly to the issue of whether the defendant was criminally responsible. Her closing “left the impression [on the jury] that the defendant’s invocation in significant part demonstrated that he was criminally responsible” for the rape.

Despite finding the prosecutor’s references to Letkowski’s silence were error, the court did not reverse his conviction. It found other, proper evidence proved he had committed the rape.