Jim Dey | Was 'messed up' murder confession legal? Just barely, appeals court says

Jim Dey | Was 'messed up' murder confession legal? Just barely, appeals court says

Weep no tears for Decatur hoodlum Matthew Higgins-Vogt.

He's a bad guy. That's why he's serving a 60-year sentence in federal prison.

Higgins-Vogt's partner in crime — Kelton Snyder — is even worse. Snyder is serving a life sentence.

But as bad as Higgins-Vogt's crime was, the circumstances leading to his conviction for the shotgun murder of a criminal associate prompted a Chicago federal appeals court to shake a disapproving finger at Macon County authorities.

"The criminal justice system did not see one of its finer moments here," wrote Justice Michael Scudder in a 17-page opinion that somewhat reluctantly affirmed Higgins-Vogt's conviction.

The question that troubled the court stemmed from what could have been — but was not — construed as a violation of Higgins-Vogt's constitutional right to remain silent.

Police didn't beat a confession out of him or even promise leniency if he'd come clean. In fact, they didn't even talk to Higgins-Vogt in the county jail until he asked to speak with them.

But Higgins-Vogt was doing a lot of talking with another jail employee and was so moved by his conversations with her that he eventually made a written request to speak with investigators.

About what did he wish to discuss?

"I want to confess to the Paige Mars murder," Higgins-Vogt wrote on his "inmate request form."

As a consequence, the appeals court concluded that Higgins-Vogt fell into a legal pitfall that had "all the earmarks of a bait-and-switch of extraordinary gravity and potential consequences."

Here's the background.

Higgins-Vogt and Snyder, armed with a shotgun, robbed a Circle K gas station of $700 on April 3, 2015. A third person — Paige Mars — drove their getaway car.

At some point shortly thereafter, the two men became concerned that Mars might testify against them. So they killed Mars in a wooded area near the Sangamon River in Decatur, Higgins-Vogt doing the honors with multiple shotgun blasts.

Despite that, the pair was arrested for the Circle K robbery.

After being locked up, Higgins-Vogt confessed his role in the murder to jail employee Sharon Brown, described as "a contractor working (the jail) and holding herself out as a mental-health counselor."

Although "not a licensed mental-health professional," Brown met on numerous occasions with Higgins-Vogt for counseling purposes, among other things advising him to confess the killing to law officers.

Once defendants have exercised their right to remain silent, law enforcement is barred from further efforts, even indirect, to secure a confession. That includes sending an agent of law enforcement to the defendant to extract a confession.

The appeals court concluded that Brown was, in fact, an "agent" of law enforcement, and she candidly admitted that she sought to persuade Higgins-Vogt to acknowledge his complicity in the murder.

While stating she wished to assist inmates, Brown said she also encourages them "to continue to talk to police" so they can "heal and have peace."

"I'm supportive of (Higgins-Vogt) telling the truth, and if he ever wants to say anything else, I'm supportive of that, and I will encourage that," she said.

In Higgins-Vogt's case, Brown was remarkably successful in getting him to confess.

The legal question raised is whether that confession, given Brown's status as an agent of law enforcement, could be admitted into evidence and used to secure Higgins-Vogt's conviction.

The appeals court characterized the "question" as whether Brown's decisive role "amounted to coercion sufficient to overcome (his) free will."

As egregious as her behavior was, Scudder said, "Brown's conduct alone tells nowhere near the whole story."

It was not just discussions with Brown that prompted Higgins-Vogt to confess. He had similar conversations with his girlfriend. By the time he sat down with investigators, Higgins-Vogt felt compelled to "get this information off his chest because he could no longer live with keeping it to himself and not owning up to what he did."

"Taken in their entirety, all the facts and circumstances show that Higgins-Vogt's decision to confess was the product of his own free will," Scudder wrote.

He was joined in the opinion by justices Diane Sykes and Diane Woods.

Nonetheless, the justices were concerned about law officers operating just barely inside the rules.

The justices expressed concern about Brown's false statement regarding her pledge of confidentiality. They also noted that law officers can't "wash their hands of the whole affair by pointing out that they never recruited Brown to elicit a confession" from Higgins-Vogt.

"The stakes for those who stand accused are way too high for all of this to have occurred, to say nothing of the imperative of protecting the integrity of mental-health counseling offered to inmates," Scudder wrote.

The case is now over, according to Higgins-Vogt's court-appointed counsel, Evan Bruno.

Ultimately, Higgins-Vogt pleaded guilty and was sentenced to what amounts to life in prison. His plea allowed him to appeal the confession issue to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Since his confession, Higgins-Vogt's fervor to take responsibility for the killing has subsided. Bruno said his client now suffers from "buyer's remorse" and that he's resentful of his circumstances.

Bruno described the court's opinion as the result of him having only half of the facts he needed to make a persuasive argument.

"I had a really good argument that what happened in the Macon County jail was messed up," he said. "I didn't have as strong an argument that my client gave an involuntary confession."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.