The stiff, straight-backed school chair — the kind with an attached writing surface — had grown more uncomfortable by the minute, enough so that Van Chester Thompkins actually told his police interrogators about it.
That was one of the few things he had said during the session that had lasted about 2 hours and 45 minutes, other than an occasional "yeah," "no," "I don't know" or a nod of the head. The most he had said was that he didn't want a peppermint when the cops offered him one.
He was in the 8-by-10-foot room because Samuel Morris had been shot to death outside a mall in Southfield, Mich., and he was the chief suspect. Thompkins had been on the lam for about a year before he was arrested in Ohio. Now detectives from Michigan had him, and they wanted the truth, something seldom volunteered by guys suspected of violent street crimes.
Finally, one of the officers looked Thompkins in the eye and threw out a curveball.
"Do you believe in God?"
"Yes," Thompkins said, and the detective noticed his eyes welling with tears.
"Do you pray to God?"
"Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?"
Thus was born the latest round of parsing and picking at the Miranda rule, which always seems to have plenty of meat left to pick. Miranda has vexed America since Ernest Miranda, convicted of rape in Phoenix, was let go in 1966 because the court said his rights against self-incrimination were violated during an interrogation.
In the case of Thompkins, court documents say police had presented him with a written version of Miranda, informing him of, among other things, his "right to remain silent." But while he never specifically invoked that right, his attorney later claimed his silence for most of the 2 hours and 45 minutes was the same thing.
Except, of course, that he did speak up about the prayer thing, which eventually helped lead to his conviction for first-degree murder.
Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court had a chance to decide that the Constitution doesn't require the exact wording of the Miranda warning. But the court instead said the "warnings have become part of our national culture." You can thank television and movies for that. Most Americans probably can recite Miranda better than the Ten Commandments. Therefore, Miranda may not be in the Constitution, but Congress can't change it.
Last week the court didn't alter that hallowed status, but it did chip away a bit at Miranda's shield of technicalities, which too many suspects have used against the arrows of charges for crimes committed.
By a 5-4 margin, the court said Thompkins had plenty of opportunity to invoke his right to remain silent, and that he knew what he was doing when he answered the question about prayer.
"Suppression of a voluntary confession in these circumstances would place a significant burden on society's interest in prosecuting criminal activity," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court's majority.
Well, of course it would.
Several years ago, University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell revealed evidence that as many as 136,000 violent crimes went unsolved each year because of Miranda. A quarter of all crimes cannot be solved without a confession, and Miranda's wording emphasizes the right to stay silent to the point where it hinders that.
So does a growing gang culture that urges witnesses, accomplices and victims not to snitch on criminals.
It's not that suspects shouldn't be informed of their rights. But there are other ways — videotaping all interrogations, for instance — to make sure abuses don't happen.
The justices got this one right, but if only one ideological seat on the court were to change, police could have a much tougher time.