Today marks the 31nd anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Colorado v. Connelly. This case set a low bar for what counts as a knowing and intelligent waiver of ones Miranda rights, in part to guarantee that statements made by the mentally ill, mentally challenged, and ignorant, could still be used in subsequent criminal prosecutions.
The case behind Colorado v. Connelly highlights the difficulty courts have had in determining what counts as a knowing and voluntarily waiver of one’s constitutional rights. In April 1983, police found the body of a young girl behind an alley southwest Denver Colorado. Police could not identify the body, as it had suffered serious decomposition. An autopsy found that the girl had died from six stab wounds to the back. Fingerprints proved inconclusive in identifying her. Dental analysis put the victims age at between 15 and 16 years old. With no other leads, the case became cold until August 18th, 1983.
On that day, Francis Connelly, a severely mentally ill man with an extensive, well documented history of Schizophrenia, approached an off-duty Denver police officer in front of the Denver Courthouse and asked to be arrested. The officer initially thought Mr. Connelly was joking, and asked why, to which Mr. Connelly responded, “I killed someone”. When the officer asked for more information, Mr. Connelly said that he had stabbed a 14-year-old girl near the area were the young girls body had been found the previous April. The officer immediately gave Mr. Connelly his “Miranda Warning”, and arrested him and took him to the police station. While waiting for the Detectives to arrive and question him, Mr. Connelly said he wanted to talk about the case.
Mr. Connelly stated that he had met the girl while he was a Taxi driver in Boston, and had traveled to Denver with her on a greyhound the previous year. He said the girl’s name was Mary Anne Junta and stated he would take police to where the body was located. When asked if he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Mr. Connelly said no. After giving him another “Miranda Warning” police followed Connelly’s directions to the scene where the body had been found in April and became visibly upset and scared to be at the scene.
During the following months, Denver Detectives traveled to Boston to get more info on the victim only to be told they had no missing persons reports matching the victims description. Detectives also met with Mr. Connelly’s parents who attested that Mr. Connelly had brought a girl matching the victim’s description to their home for Thanksgiving in 1982. The family reported the girl worked at a local tire shop and Mr. Connelly had worked as a Taxi driver at that time. They also reported that they received a phone call from Mr. Connelly on Christmas 1982 asking for money to pay for a plane ticket from Denver to Boston however when they arrived at the airport to pick him up, he never showed. The parents then received a call in January of 1983 from a Mental Hospital in New York saying they were treating their son.
The detectives finally found an area tire shop where the girl had worked, and with the help of the employees were able to contact the girl’s family. The girl’s family were Native Americans from Canada who positively identified the articles of clothing found on the body in April. With the identification in hand, Prosecutors brought charges of second degree murder against Mr. Connelly for the death of Mary Anne Junta.
At trial, Mr. Connelly sought to have his confession suppressed, arguing that his statements were not voluntary. Mr. Connelly had to be hospitalized for 7 months following the identification of the body’s location, and was found incompetent to stand trial during that period. Doctors diagnosed him with chronic schizophrenia and Mr. Connelly testified that he confessed at the behest of “the word of God”. He also testified that God told him to confess or kill himself and that demons had been escaping from Mary Anne Junta’s body after he killed her. The defense brought the state Psychiatrist who had treated Mr. Connelly during his hospitalization to the stand who testified that Mr. Connelly was indeed deeply mentally ill, suffered from auditory hallucinations, believed the voice was “the voice of God”, was relatively high functioning, but had no ability to resist the “word of God”. As such, He testified that Mr. Connelly could not voluntarily have waived his right against self-incrimination because he could not disobey the “voice of God.”
The State offered no witnesses against the defense, and the Trial judge made the unexpected decision to suppress all of Mr. Connelly’s statements reasoning that he had not exercised his free will in speaking with the police because he was under duress as a result of his mental illness. The State immediately appealed the Trial judges ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court, who promptly ridiculed the Trial judge for the manner in which he had conducted the hearing but affirmed his ruling regarding the suppression of the evidence.
The State then applied for a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court on one issue. They wanted cert on the admissibility of statements made by Mr. Connelly prior to his arrest. Cert was granted in 1986.
On October 8th, 1968 at the Supreme Court, the State argued that Mr. Connelly’s statements to the police officer prior to his arrest had been made knowingly and voluntarily. The State contended that Connelly may have been under duress at the time he made the statements, however Miranda was not meant to protect suspects from coercion of non-governmental agents, in this case, Miranda was not intended to protect a suspect from their own mental coercion.
Mr. Connelly’s lawyers argued that Miranda’s holding was meant to protect a suspect from coercion, and as such did not distinguish between government and non-governmental actors. Further, the Defense argued that Mr. Connelly could not have made a knowing or voluntary waiver of his rights because he was suffering a Schizophrenic episode and was therefore incapable of making a knowing a voluntary waiver of his rights.
On December 10th, 1986, the Supreme Court rendered its judgment. In a 7 – 2 decision, the Majority led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist held that the protections established in Miranda did not apply non-governmental agents. The Court reasoned that suppressing such statements would have no deterrent effect on law enforcement which as the primary reason for the Miranda protections in the first place. Further, the Court held that for a statement to be knowing, the suspect only needs to understand what his rights where. Also, for a statement to be voluntary, the suspect must make his statements free of government coercion. In this case, the Majority believed that Mr. Connelly had been compelled to confess, by that compulsion did not come from the government, and as such was not within the protection of Miranda.
With the Supreme Court’s decision rendered, the case was reversed and remanded to the trial court to finish the case. However, due to how long the case had taken to get to the Supreme Court, and because Mr. Connelly had remained in jail for the entire appeal process, Mr. Connelly had accumulated a large amount of time served off his possible sentence. As such, Mr. Connelly plead guilty to the charge of second degree Murder, was sentenced to 12 years in prison, immediately applied his time served to the sentence, and was paroled a year and half later in 1989 having served 5 years and ten months in prison. Once Mr. Connelly completed his parole, he left Colorado in 1990, and has not been heard of since.
While the case highlights a difficult area of mental health and criminal justice, the holding of Colorado v. Connelly remains clear. The protections established in Miranda, and those enshrined in the 5th and 6th amendment is integral to a defendant’s rights, those rights can be waived. Miranda does not protect you from non-governmental coercion. Further, a simple understanding of your rights is all that is required to waive them. Experienced Legal Representation is necessary to ensure that your rights are protected from the state, and from yourself, especially if you suffer from mental illness.
Written By Hunter White
 Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 107 S. Ct. 515 (1986)
 Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602 (1966)