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Name: Sessoms v. Grounds
Case #: 08-17790
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 09/22/2014
Subsequent History: Opinion amended and rehearing denied 1/23/2015

California appellate court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law when it held suspect’s request for counsel was ambiguous. Nineteen-year-old Sessoms, who was relatively naive and uneducated, surrendered to police based on his father’s advice when he heard there was a warrant out for his arrest. At the beginning of his custodial interrogation, Sessoms asked police, “There wouldn’t be any possible way I could have a lawyer present while we do this?” He next stated, “that’s what my dad asked me to ask you guys . . . uh, give me a lawyer.” Instead of ceasing the interrogation, the detectives continued, warning him about the “risks” of speaking with counsel before reading him his Miranda rights. Sessoms agreed to talk and made incriminating statements. He was convicted of first degree murder with a special circumstance, robbery, and burglary. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the convictions, concluding that Sessoms’ request for counsel was not unequivocal or unambiguous, as required by Davis v. United States (1994) 512 U.S. 452. Sessoms filed a federal habeas petition in the district court, which was denied. Held: Reversed. The state appellate court unreasonably applied Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436, Edwards v. Arizona (1981) 451 U.S. 477, and Davis by analyzing Sessoms’ statements in isolation rather than in the context of the interrogation. Based on the circumstances of the interrogation, the officers understood that Sessoms was requesting counsel and it was unreasonable for the state court to hold that Sessoms’ second statement was ambiguous. Sessoms clearly articulated his desire to have counsel present and was not simply conveying his father’s advice. The constitutional error was not harmless.