Archie Dixon and Tim Hoffner murdered Chris Hammer in order to steal his car. Dixon then used Hammer’s birth certificate and social security card to obtain a state identification card in Hammer’s name. After using that identification card to establish ownership of Hammer’s car, Dixon sold the vehicle. Hammer’s mother reported her son missing the day after his murder. While investigating Hammer’s disappearance, police had various encounters with Dixon. On November 4, 1993, a police detective spoke with Dixon at a local police station. It was a chance encounter—Dixon was apparently visiting the police station to retrieve his own car, which had been impounded for a traffic violation. The detective issued Miranda warnings to Dixon and then asked to talk to him about Hammer’s disappearance. Dixon declined to answer questions without his lawyer present and left the station.
As their investigation continued, police determined that Dixon had sold Hammer’s car and forged Hammer’s signature when cashing the check he received in that sale. Police arrested Dixon for forgery on the morning of November 9. Beginning at 11:30 a.m. detectives intermittently interrogated Dixon over several hours, speaking with him for about 45 minutes total. Prior to the interrogation, the detectives had decided not to provide Dixon with Miranda warnings for fear that Dixon would again refuse to speak with them. Dixon readily admitted to obtaining the identification card in Hammer’s name and signing Hammer’s name on the check, but said that Hammer had given him permission to sell the car. Dixon claimed not to know where Hammer was, although he said he thought Hammer might have left for Tennessee. The same afternoon, Hoffner led police to Hammer’s grave. Hoffner claimed that Dixon had told him that Hammer was buried there. After concluding their interview with Hoffner and releasing him, the police had Dixon transported back to the police station.
Dixon arrived at the police station at about 7:30 p.m. Prior to any police questioning, Dixon stated that he had heard the police had found a body and asked whether Hoffner was in custody. The police told Dixon that Hoffner was not, at which point Dixon said, “I talked to my attorney, and I want to tell you what happened.” The police read Dixon his Miranda rights, obtained a signed waiver of those rights, and spoke with Dixon for about half an hour. At 8 p.m. the police, now using a tape recorder, again advised Dixon of his Miranda rights. In a detailed confession, Dixon admitted to murdering Hammer but attempted to pin the lion’s share of the blame on Hoffner.
At Dixon’s trial, the Ohio trial court excluded both Dixon’s initial confession to forgery and his later confession to murder. The State took an interlocutory appeal. The State did not dispute that Dixon’s forgery confession was properly suppressed, but argued that the murder confession was admissible because Dixon had received Miranda warnings prior to that confession. The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed and allowed Dixon’s murder confession to be admitted as evidence. Dixon was convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery, and forgery, and sentenced to death. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed Dixon’s convictions and sentence. To analyze the admissibility of Dixon’s murder confession, the court applied Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U. S. 298 (1985). The Ohio Supreme Court found that Dixon’s confession to murder after receiving Miranda warnings was admissible because that confession and his prior, unwarned confession to forgery were both voluntary.
Dixon then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U. S. C. §2254 in the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Dixon claimed, inter alia, that the state court decisions allowing the admission of his murder confession contravened clearly established federal law. The District Court denied relief, but a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed.
The Sixth Circuit had authority to issue the writ of habeas corpus only if the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” as set forth in the Supreme Court’s holdings, or was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts” in light of the state court record.
The Supreme Court observed that as the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion explained, the circumstances surrounding Dixon’s interrogations demonstrate that his statements were voluntary. During Dixon’s first interrogation, he received several breaks, was given water and offered food, and was not abused or threatened. He freely acknowledged that he had forged Hammer’s name, even stating that the police were “welcome” to that information, and he had no difficulty denying that he had anything to do with Hammer’s disappearance. Prior to his second interrogation, Dixon made an unsolicited declaration that he had spoken with his attorney and wanted to tell the police what had happened to Hammer. Then, before giving his taped confession, Dixon twice received Miranda warnings and signed a waiver-of-rights form which stated that he was acting of his own free will. The Ohio Supreme Court recognized that Dixon’s first interrogation involved “an intentional Miranda violation.” The court concluded, however, that “as in Elstad, the breach of the Miranda procedures here involved no actual compulsion” and thus there was no reason to suppress Dixon’s later, warned confession. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, believing that Dixon’s confession was inadmissible under Elstad because it was the product of a “deliberate question-first, warn-later strategy.”
The Supreme Court held that the admission of Dixon’s murder confession was consistent with the Supreme Court’s precedents: Dixon received Miranda warnings before confessing to Hammer’s murder; the effectiveness of those warnings was not impaired by the sort of “two-step interrogation technique” condemned in Seibert; and there was no evidence that any of Dixon’s statements was the product of actual coercion. That does not excuse the detectives’ decision not to give Dixon Miranda warnings before his first interrogation. But the Ohio courts recognized that failure and imposed the appropriate remedy: exclusion of Dixon’s forgery confession and the attendant statements given without the benefit of Miranda warnings. Because no precedent of the Supreme Court required Ohio to do more, the Sixth Circuit was without authority to overturn the reasoned judgment of the State’s highest court. The petition for a writ of certiorari and respondent’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis were granted. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.