High Court Overturns Worcester Murder Conviction

SNOW HILL — A Pittsville man, sentenced to life in prison for the 2008 stabbing death of a Worcester County man, will get a shot at a new trial after the state’s highest court last week ruled incriminating statements he made to detectives came after his request for an attorney during an interrogation.

Charles Robert Phillips, now 32, of Pittsville, last April was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years for the stabbing death of William Nibblett, 77, in the victim’s home in Pocomoke in March 2008. Four years later, the Maryland Court of Appeals last week issued an opinion overturning the conviction because statements Phillips made during an interrogation by Pocomoke Police Detective and now State Delegate Mike McDermott following his arrest were made after he had requested an attorney.

“It is undisputed here that Phillips was arrested, taken to a State Police barrack and subjected to a custodial interrogation, and that after 45 minutes of conversation, he expressed a desire to consult with an attorney,” the opinion reads. “It is also undisputed that, following that expression, a police detective continued to engage Phillips in conversation, during which Phillips indicated a desire to continue talking to the detective and ultimately made a number of incriminating statements.”

Nibblett was stabbed to death in his Pocomoke home on March 6, 2008. Phillips was identified as a suspect and was arrested six days later on March 12. He was transported to the Maryland State Police barrack in Salisbury and placed in a conference room with McDermott. Around 4:15 p.m., Pocomoke Police Detective Scott Mitchell gave Phillips the Miranda advice of rights, and although the record indicates otherwise, Phillips’ counsel conceded that his client signed a written Miranda waiver.

McDermott then began to engage Phillips in some general conversation and later said the suspect did not want to talk about any involvement in the case. In an effort to establish a rapport with Phillips, McDermott’s conversation dealt with the suspect’s personal life, his family, his tattoos, what he had been doing etc., according to court documents.

About 45 minutes later, Mitchell barged in and interrupted the interview process and became “confrontational” and “somewhat accusatory” of Phillips, indicating he believed Phillips had been involved in the homicide. At that point, Phillips said he wanted an attorney and Mitchell left the interview room at McDermott’s request.

McDermott stayed with Phillips and advised the suspect his invocation of the right to counsel “meant I couldn’t speak to him regarding the case,” and that “if he wanted to talk and he wanted to tell the story to me, he could do that. All he had to do was say that he wanted to, that he wanted to reaffirm that he didn’t want counsel, and that I could talk to him.”

According to court records, Phillips decided he did want to continue talking. McDermott said that prior to Phillips changing his mind, he told the suspect “he could talk to me anytime he wanted to, but he would have to waive his right to counsel,” and that “I wanted to get his side of the story but it was entirely up to him.”

Only five to 10 minutes elapsed between the time Phillips asked for an attorney and the time the suspect agreed to continue an interrogation. At that point, McDermott and Phillips continued to engage in some general conversation, now being taped. The Miranda advice was not repeated prior to the start of the taped interrogation, according to court documents. In his taped statement, Phillips acknowledged in the course of an altercation with the victim over money Nibblett owed him, Phillips grabbed a knife and Nibblett “ran into” the knife.

According to court records, the Circuit Court judge denied a motion to suppress Phillips’ taped statement, finding the suspect “knew what he was doing” when he gave the taped statement. The Circuit Court further determined there was only a five to 10-minute gap between Phillips’ request for counsel and his decision to submit to further interrogation.

“We are not concerned here with whether Phillips sufficiently invoked his right to an attorney,” the opinion reads. “Detective McDermott accepted that he had and the state does not contend otherwise. The question is whether the five or 10 minute conversation that ensued after his invocation of that right constituted a prohibited interrogation.”

The court opined Phillips’ statements made after his request for an attorney constituted a violation of his Miranda rights and remanded the case back to Circuit Court for a new trial.

“We do not condemn the police for using legitimate tactics, including telling a suspect they would like to hear his or her side of the story, in order to induce the suspect to respond to questions or make a statement so long as the Miranda advisements have been given,” the opinion reads. “When those rights have not been waived, however, and the suspect has elected to remain silent generally or to consult with an attorney before undergoing further interrogation, that kind of inducement generally will suffice to constitute the functional equivalent of an impermissible continuing interrogation.”