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Admissibility of potential ‘confession’ in question for Dorie Miller Park shooting murder trial

By Bobby Bordelon

The trial admissibility of a statement potentially containing a confession could be denied in the first degree murder case against Edward Smith-Allen. In his initial police interview, Smith-Allen said ‘I do want a lawyer,’ but was never afforded one. According to the defense, this violates several of Smith-Allen’s constitutional rights, including the right to an attorney. However, the state argues that the phrase was a question, asking if he could have an attorney in the court proceedings after the interview if he agreed to be interviewed by police without a lawyer.

Smith-Allen was indicted for the murder of Alaisia M. Smith, a local Greenbrier East High School student, in October 2019. Smith passed away as a result of gunshot wounds received in Dorie Miller Park in June 2019. Previously, Smith-Allen was denied bond and the case was divided into two phases, one for the trial and one for potential sentencing if he is found guilty.

On Friday, July 31, under Judge Jennifer Dent, the Greenbrier County Circuit Court virtually heard arguments around the admissibility of Smith-Allen’s June 8 statement to police following his initial arrest. Although the content of the statement was not examined during the Friday hearing, the state’s motion points to its potential trial importance.

“This statement incriminates the defendant and amounts to a confession of at least some of the criminal conduct with which [he] is charged,” reads the state motion. “The state seeks to use this statement against the defendant in the trial of this case.”

The Friday hearing included testimony from Sergent David Eggleston of the Lewisburg Police Department, who conducted the interview. Eggleston, as part of his investigation into the case, reached Smith-Allen over the phone and asked him to come into the station on June 8, the day after the shooting.

“You informed Mr. Smith-Allen that you need to talk to him,” defense attorney Kristopher Faerber asked during the cross-examination.

“Yes sir,” responded Eggleston.

“You initiated that conversation.”

“Yes sir.”

“At that point in time, you had obtained a criminal complaint and an arrest warrant for Mr. Smith-Allen.”

“Yes sir.”

“You tell him that when you talked to him around 11 a.m.?”

“No, sir, I do not believe I did.”

“Did you only say you wanted to talk to him?”

“Yes sir.”

Smith-Allen arrived at the police station later that day, and Eggleston began the interview by searching him and reading him his rights. The defense’s motion to revoke the statement’s admissibility comes down to one moment:

“Mr. Smith Allen is looking at the [Miranda rights] form he’s being asked to sign and it says ‘I do not want a lawyer.’ His immediate response is ‘I do want a lawyer,’” explained Faerber. “… Then Officer Eggleston [continues the interview], he doesn’t stop and say ‘I’ll get you a lawyer.’ That has to occur judge. In the analysis of these cases … there is one brightline and it’s when there is a clear and unequivical request for council, the communication between police and the defendant, it must cease. It never does here judge, it never does.”

The state sought to keep the statement admissible, citing Smith-Allen’s signature on the Miranda rights form.

“There is a very technical point being argued here, that uttering the words ‘I want a lawyer’ has uniform meaning to it and is so right-protectable that literally Sgt. Eggeston had to shut down what he was doing when that statement was made. That’s simply not true,” Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Via argued. “… His language, that the court will hear in the interview [through audio and video recordings] clearly reflect that he wanted to do this interview. He didn’t want to be left [without representation] after the interview, knowing he was going to be placed in formal custody when the interview was over and certainly didn’t want to get left without an attorney as the case moved forward and that is precisely what his inquiry was about. … The Miranda forum is the exhaustive manner under which Sgt. Eggleston reviewed with Mr. Smith-Allen his rights. It clearly establishes the voluntariness of his statement in all respects.”

Through Eggleston’s testimony, Via confirmed that after the exchange, Smith-Allen signed the Miranda form, and said Eggleston’s response to what he perceived to be a question was the ‘textbook’ response.

“When Mr. Smith-Allen read ‘I do not want a lawyer at this time,’ he did say ‘I do want a lawyer at this time.’ My interpretation of that was it was a question … if he would be able to obtain a lawyer after the interview if he signed [the Miranda rights form],” Eggleston testified. “… I advised him that he has a right to a lawyer at any point in time and by signing the waiver of his rights, he is not giving up his right to an attorney at any point in time.”

Faeber pushed back, stating a ‘textbook’ response would have been to stop the interview.

“The fact that it’s adversarial is very important … this is not just a suspect this is somebody that the state has already leveled their weight against in a prosecutorial manner,” Faeber said. “… When he says that clearly, that ‘I do want a lawyer,’ that kind of statement can’t be ignored. You’ll see on the tape, it says it so clearly. If you have any question about what someone means when they say ‘I do want a lawyer,’ the rights at stake here require the state to acknowledge that … and address the issue. [The issue] wasn’t addressed here, it was rolled right over.”

The statement’s admissibility was not ruled on Friday; any potential orders issued by Dent determining the admissibility of the statement are expected after additional filings submitted by the state and defense by August 12, such as the video and audio of the interview. In addition, the logistics of holding the case, such as making the trial more accessible to the public via technology in both courtrooms of the Greenbrier County Courthouse, will also be held in early August.