MANATEE — Then-Sheriff Charlie Wells watched Blaine Ross confess to killing his parents on a live video feed, as well as the controversial interrogation that took place in the hours leading up to the confession. More than six years later, he says the detective handling the investigation did everything by the book.
The Florida Supreme Court disagreed in a narrow 4-3 decision released Thursday that overturned Ross’ first-degree murder conviction and death penalty sentence. He will be granted a new trial.
“I disagree with the ruling,” Wells told the Herald on Friday. “I watched the whole thing on video from another room as it was going on, and the detective did everything right.
“I just disagree, but of course their opinion is the only one that matters,” the former sheriff added. “I still believe there is enough evidence to have him convicted at a new trial.”
But at least one legal expert says the Supreme Court made the right decision to overturn the conviction as Ross appeared to already be in custody.
“That belief that you are in custody is the tipping point for Miranda,” Stetson University law professor Charles Rose said. “I think the justices could not get around the fact that this was custodial interview from the beginning. I’m sure they wanted to get around it.”
In May 2007, a jury convicted Ross of killing his parents, Richard and Kathleen, with a baseball bat in their East Manatee home on Jan. 7, 2004. Jurors later recommended to a judge that he be given the death penalty. Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas did so in November 2007.
But the Supreme Court justices ruled that Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Detective William Waldron violated Ross’ Miranda rights by taking him through several hours of grueling questioning without reading him his rights first. Miranda outlines a person’s right to remain silent and to obtain an attorney.
Ross signed a written waiver of his rights just before he confessed to killing his parents, Richard and Kathleen, which three dissenting justices pointed to as good police work.
But the majority said Ross should have been read his Miranda rights well before he was confronted with accusations of guilt and evidence from the killings. The opinion said Waldron assured Ross that he was not under arrest, “downplayed” the written Miranda form, and obtained an involuntary confession from Ross after hours of pressure-packed questioning.
The justices wrote about that pressure and brought up Wells in their opinion, referring to him as “the sheriff.” Sheriff’s office officials say Waldron cannot comment on the opinion because it is still an active criminal case.
“Before the interview, the sheriff spoke to Detective Waldron, informing Detective Waldron that he was counting on him to ‘get closure on this,’ ” the opinion reads.
When defense attorneys tried to get Ross’ confession thrown out before the trial, Waldron testified that the sheriff’s office had a general order requiring him to read Miranda to a suspect before questioning turned accusatory.
The justices wrote that Waldron “deliberately chose not to follow this policy.”
Waldron testified in court that while Wells “did not explicitly tell him to violate the general policies, the sheriff gave him guidance on how this interview should proceed and since the sheriff was watching the entire interview, he would have stepped in if he disagreed with the detective’s decisions,” the opinion stated.
Wells readily acknowledged that during his career he put pressure on his detectives to solve all murders. But he took offense to a possible inference that he encouraged Waldron to violate Ross’ rights.
“There is pressure to solve all homicides, that is just a natural phenomenon in law enforcement,” Wells said. “But if they are inferring that I pressured anyone to break the rules, that is just dead wrong.”
Whether the interrogation violated Ross’ rights comes down to whether Ross believed he was in custody as Waldron grilled him, according to Stetson’s Rose.
Ross was in the sheriff’s office surrounded by detectives and had no reason to believe early on he was free to go, Rose observed Friday. The dissenting justices pointed to the fact that Ross volunteered to come to the sheriff’s office, but once Ross got there, the questioning quickly brought pressure that led him to ask if he was under arrest — a clear sign he believed he was in custody, Rose said.
Detectives have long delayed administering Miranda rights to suspects, he said, as an investigative tactic to ramp up pressure during questioning.
“It is a psychological confrontation in an effort to break down a person and get them to talk,” Rose said. “Reading Miranda can derail that.”
The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision will most likely not mean much for Ross, but it is another defining decision for law enforcement with regard to citizen’s rights, Ross believes.
“There is enough evidence in the case that Ross will most likely get convicted again and sent right back to death row,” Rose said. “But where this is important is in defense of our rights. When we begin to cut corners, over the long run it destroys the fabric of our society.”