In a unanimous ruling on Nov. 2, the state Supreme Court upheld DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Linda Warren Hunter’s decision to suppress the alleged coerced confession of a man accused of murder.
The case centers on the December 2006 slaying of a DeKalb man. Prosecutors say Patrick Lynch slashed and stabbed Kory Gore when the victim rejected a sexual advance. After killing Gore, authorities say Lynch stole the victim’s Ford Expedition and fled to North Carolina. After several days on the run, which ended in a high-speed chase, North Carolina authorities arrested Lynch.
While holding Lynch in their custody, North Carolina officials notified the DeKalb County Police Department. Two DeKalb detectives, Kevin Farmer and Shane Cheek, traveled to Nash County, N.C., to question Lynch about the murder.
According to court documents, Lynch gave an incriminating statement to DeKalb investigators. Ultimately, they charged him with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and theft by taking.
In the ruling, written by Justice George Carley, the high court noted “extensive oral comments” in which the trial court found that Nash County police officers removed Lynch’s clothes, beat and tasered him and withheld medical attention before DeKalb authorities arrived. Consequently, Lynch gave a statement to DeKalb police to leave Nash County and obtain medical attention.
When Hunter suppressed Lynch’s incriminating statement, the prosecutor appealed. The state argued that Lynch voluntarily made the incriminating statement to the DeKalb detectives.
Under Georgia law, the high court noted, only voluntary incriminating statements are admissible, and prosecutors bear the burden of proving the “voluntariness” of a confession by a preponderance of the evidence.
In backing Hunter’s decision to suppress the confession, the justices wrote that she based her ruling on a finding of coercion and duress and based on the totality of the circumstances. “If that finding was authorized by the evidence, it clearly was sufficient to support exclusion of Lynch’s pretrial statement,” they state.
The justices continued: “Contrary to the state’s remaining arguments, Lynch’s testimony fully supported the trial court’s findings. Those findings, as well as the court’s credibility determinations, were neither inherently contradictory nor absurd.”
Cheek’s testimony, the justices said, was “successfully impeached.” What’s more, the North Carolina officers did not testify. The state offered them as witnesses only after it submitted a motion for reconsideration, they note.
Although he joined with the other justices in siding with the trial court, Justice David Nahmias wrote a separate opinion. He expressed dissatisfaction and “little comfort” that the lower court and prosecutor made enough of an effort to determine whether Lynch’s confession was coerced.
Nahmias wrote: “…I would be much more confident that we were reaching the factually correct result, rather than simply the legally correct result, if the record contained more of the readily available and highly probative evidence on the important questions presented—the reliability of a confession to murder and the misconduct of law enforcement officers.”
He lamented that the North Carolina police officers who arrested and detained Lynch did not testify. Nahmias noted that two of the Nash County officers were in the courtroom when the court denied the motion for reconsideration and repeated its finding that they had “terrorized [Lynch] until the time DeKalb County got there.”
Despite the presence of the officers, the trial court “did not seem interested in what they would say about that issue, under oath and subject to cross examination.”
He also criticized the state: “The prosecutor’s performance in this case obviously leaves much to be desired. That is a situation that could easily have been avoided, but regrettably was not.”