COVINGTON, Ga. — The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled Newton County sheriff’s deputies did not have a murder suspect in custody in 2019 when she made statements about the shooting death of her mother.
Justices wrote in a unanimous decision that a Newton County Superior Court judge wrongly ruled in 2020 that murder suspect Carly Walden’s statements to an investigator could be suppressed because she believed she already was in custody on the charges before she was read her Miranda rights in April 2019.
Justices concluded that “considering the totality of the circumstances,” evidence in the record from the Superior Court hearing did not warrant the Newton County judge’s ruling that a “reasonable person in Walden’s situation would believe that she was in custody” before being read her Miranda rights.
“We thus conclude that the trial court erred in concluding that Walden’s pre-Miranda statements to (sheriff’s Investigator Clinton) French were due to be suppressed,” the ruling stated.
The Miranda rule mandates that a suspect taken into police custody must be told about their rights — such as the right to having an attorney present — before they may be interrogated.
But the ruling also stated Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr. was correct in declining to suppress other statements she made to a deputy at the scene and during a ride in the deputy’s vehicle to the sheriff’s office.
Walden is awaiting trial on charges of Malice Murder and other crimes related to the April 28, 2019, shooting death of her mother, Andrea Walker, at the home they shared on Alcovy Way in Covington.
The Supreme Court’s May 3 ruling stated that a court must consider the “totality of the circumstances” without “regard for the subjective views of the suspect or the interrogating officer” to determine if a suspect is in custody.
“Whether a defendant was in custody for purposes of Miranda is a mixed question of fact and law,” the ruling stated.
It stated the “proper inquiry” in the case was “how a reasonable person in [Walden]’s shoes would have perceived [her] situation.”
“Although there is no one dispositive factor, important considerations include ‘the location of the questioning, its duration, statements made during the interview, the presence or absence of physical restraints during the questioning, and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning,’” the ruling stated.
‘GOING TO TAKE A RIDE’
A summary of the case in the ruling said that justices were able to see firsthand what occurred because it was recorded on video.
It said Walden called police, reported a shooting and claimed an unidentified man was responsible for her mother’s murder.
Sheriff’s Deputy Davon Sydnor followed other officers in arriving at the victim’s home at about 7:26 a.m. on the morning of the shooting, in response to a 7:10 a.m. call to 911.
A few minutes after Sydnor’s arrival, Walden carried a cell phone as she followed him toward his vehicle. She sat in the back seat of the vehicle and talked to Sydnor, while he stood by the open door of the car.
“Highly agitated, she claimed that some men she had brought home from a party that night had tried to rape her and her mother.
“Deputy Sydnor asked her a number of questions about the men, their descriptions, their vehicle, and which way they may have escaped, although his interest on that point faded somewhat when she mentioned that female companions of the men had danced on top of the ceiling fan.”
Shortly thereafter, Sydnor was told by radio to “detain” Walden, stop talking to her, and transport her to the sheriff’s office.
“It does not appear from the video recording that Walden noticed the instruction that she be ‘detained,’ however, because she was talking in a focused and intense manner when that message came across the radio and continued her intense talking even after the message had been transmitted.
“In contrast, a short time later another radio message came through that mentioned taking Walden to an interview room at the sheriff’s office so she could compose herself (but made no mention of detaining her). During this message, Walden leaned forward to listen.
“Deputy Sydnor eventually motioned for Walden to stop talking, visually checked her for weapons, and asked her to fasten her seat belt. He also told her that she was ‘not in any type of trouble’ ‘right now.’”
Sydnor then asked Walden twice, “We’re going to take a ride to the sheriff’s office, OK?” Walden nodded both times and agreed, the summary stated.
“Walden was not handcuffed as they proceeded to the sheriff’s office, and she retained the cell phone that she had been carrying.
“Deputy Sydnor asked her no questions about what happened as he drove, although he told her to put her seat belt back on when she removed it and to stop moving around.
“Upon arrival at the sheriff’s office, Deputy Sydnor helped Walden look for the cell phone, which had briefly gone missing, at times turning his back to her as she stood in the parking lot.
“At one point, he told her not to touch him and to stop moving around. Walden remained unhandcuffed as she and Deputy Sydnor moved around the sheriff’s complex, seeking access to an interview room.
After finding a room, “As they waited, with the door open, Deputy Sydnor did not question Walden about the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death.
“When Walden volunteered information or asked questions, Deputy Sydnor largely did not respond or told her to wait for investigators.
“Walden did not physically attempt to leave the room while waiting for the investigator, she cannot be heard on the video recordings asking if she could leave, and Deputy Sydnor cannot be heard telling her that she could not leave.”
French then entered the interview room and, “At no time prior to beginning the interview can Investigator French be heard on the video recording of their interaction telling Walden that she could not leave.”
“Investigator French asked some preliminary questions, but did not provide Miranda warnings, before asking Walden to tell him what happened. She then spoke for less than six minutes, during which time she said that she had accidentally shot her mother," the ruling stated.
“Investigator French stopped the interview and stepped out of the room. Walden never asked or attempted to leave the interview room during the time she was speaking with Investigator French.
“Deputy Sydnor returned to the interview room a few minutes later to sit with Walden; he did not ask her questions about the shooting and left the door open. During this time, Walden attempted to get up from her chair at several points, and Deputy Sydnor told her not to get up.
“Left alone for a while, she opened the door and attempted to walk out; Deputy Sydnor asked her what she was doing and she said she was ‘getting away from you.’ Deputy Sydnor directed her back in the room and told her to sit down and stay in the room.”
French returned to the interview room more than three hours later and read Miranda warnings to her before attempting to interview her a second time. Walden promptly asked for an attorney, and French ended the interview, according to the summary.
MOTION TO SUPPRESS
After being arrested, she was indicted and filed a motion to suppress the statements that she made to officers on the date of her arrest.
At the hearing on her motion, Walden’s attorney changed the motion to narrow it to the statements Walden gave in the interview room — all of which preceded the Miranda warnings — and agreed that the only issue was whether she was in custody during that interview, the summary stated.
“Walden testified at the hearing that she had not wanted to sit in the backseat of Deputy Sydnor’s vehicle or walk to the interview room with him, but she believed that she was in custody and had no choice.”
Assistant District Attorney Jillian Hall, who prosecuted the case, said Judge Horace Johnson’s ruling “implicitly” said it was “reasonable for her to believe that she was in custody while she was in the interview room before or at the time that she gave her initial statement” to a sheriff’s investigator.
The Supreme Court ruling said the state appealed after the judge ordered that statements she made in the interview room be suppressed without giving any findings or explanation for the ruling.
“We agree with the state that the record does not support a conclusion that Walden was in custody at the time in question.”
It said Walden emphasized she was never told she was free to leave, “a factor that may support a determination that a defendant was in custody.”
Also, the video showed Sydnor told Walden that she was “not in any type of trouble” which “may indicate to a defendant that he or she is not in custody for purposes of Miranda.”
“But the video evidence contradicts her testimony, clearly showing that Walden never physically attempted to walk out of the interview room before she gave the statements in question to Investigator French. At no time prior to the statements at issue can Deputy Sydnor or Investigator French be heard on the recordings telling Walden that she was not free to leave.
“And although Walden emphasizes that she was interviewed in an interrogation room, by an investigator, without any family members present, these factors by themselves would not support a finding that she was in custody.”
The ruling was unanimous.