State v. Barnes

At the request of the Tennessee Office of the Public Defender, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, joined by NJDC and several other organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the suppression of a juvenile’s confession, which specifically sought a per se rule suppressing a confession where there is a threat of the death penalty on a juvenile.

In this case, Brendan Barnes, age 16, was transferred to adult court to be tried as an adult after he and an older cousin confessed to a brutal stabbing of a local pastor. The interrogation which preceded the confession was unrecorded, but Brendan’s actual confession was audio recorded. Brendan is borderline mentally retarded. A psychological evaluation revealed a very troubled past and concluded he could not understand his Miranda rights. The audio recording made clear that Brendan only confessed because he was threatened with the death penalty. Since states cannot seek the death penalty for offenders under 18 at the time the offense was committed, this threat was an obvious lie, but Brendan did not know this. Additionally, the false threat was coupled with a promise of leniency in exchange for a confession.

In the alternative, amici argued that the threat of the death penalty should be a factor given great weight, and in this case, as it was applied to this 16-year-old cognitively impaired youth, the confession was involuntary and should be suppressed. Amici also asserted that Brendan did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his Miranda rights.

Prior to the hearing on the suppression motion, Brendan was offered a favorable plea deal that his attorney believes was influenced by the filing of the amicus brief. Brendan pleaded guilty to facilitation of second-degree murder and facilitation of especially aggravated robbery. He received a 12-year sentence in each case and will be eligible for parole consideration after serving 30 percent of the term.

Court: Criminal Court of Hamilton County, Tennessee
: January 31, 2013 (download .pdf)
Amicus Brief Discusses: Adolescent Development; Mental Health Issues; Police Interrogation; Transfer

Resolution: April 23, 2013