FORT MYERS — Chad Moreland can’t comprehend information the way most people can, his attorneys say.
The 28-year-old murder suspect was diagnosed with mental retardation at the age of 5. He can’t read or write, cook food or live on his own. His IQ of between 54 and 62 means more than 99.5 percent of the population functions at a higher level.
It was with such limitations that detectives subjected Moreland to a criminal interrogation without properly informing him of his rights, according to defense attorneys, a psychologist and the defendant’s mother. They say Moreland’s confession in the shooting death of 20-year-old Gerald Rabon was obtained illegally, and they want it thrown out of in advance of a trial.
Moreland and sister Iris Moreland, 30, were arrested in an August 2007 armed robbery of a Pik ‘N Run on Alico Road in which 20-year-old clerk Gerald Rabon was shot in the chest. Rabon died a few days later.
Moreland, charged with first-degree murder, could face the death penalty if convicted.
His defense attorneys, Beard and Neil McLoughlin, appeared Wednesday before Lee County Circuit Judge Edward J. Volz to argue the motion.
“Not only did (Moreland) not actually waive his Miranda rights … he was not read each right individually (and asked if he understood each right),” Beard said. “They were all lumped together and read in 39 seconds.”
A video of the interrogation showed a handcuffed Moreland, hunched in a chair, an elbow leaning on the table with his face resting in his hand. Two Lee County Sheriff’s Office detectives joined Moreland at the table and one, then-Sgt. Shawn Ramsey, quickly read a copy of the Miranda rights, which outline a suspect’s right to stay silent and request an attorney.
Ramsey then asked Moreland a few questions: Had Moreland been beaten or coerced, or had deputies been good to the suspect? When Moreland agreed he’d been treated well, the interrogation began.
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek asked Ramsey if he thought Moreland understood his rights to an attorney and to remain silent.
“Yes he did,” Ramsey said. … “He was forthcoming.”
Kunasek asked the other detective, Michael Hunt, how he could know that Moreland understood his rights when Moreland was never given a waiver of rights form to sign. Hollow responded that by Moreland giving a verbal statement, he was waiving his rights.
The taped interview showed that Ramsey asked several questions to which Moreland’s response was mumbled and inaudible on the recording. The detective asked Moreland to repeat himself, and he sometimes repeated Moreland’s responses, aware they were difficult to understand. Several times Ramsey rephrased questions as yes-or-no or multiple choice questions as he tried to nail down a response.
Moreland’s defense attorneys suggested their client appeared impaired at the time of the interview, although both deputies testified they could not smell alcohol or marijuana on Moreland. They did not ask if he was impaired, and, because he was not a juvenile, did not ask if Moreland wanted his mother present, they said.
What emerged was a scenario that placed a gun in Moreland’s hand. A struggle ensued with Rabon, the gun fired accidentally and Rabon fell to the floor.
“Did you mean to shoot the boy?” Ramsey asked.
Moreland made a muffled sound.
“I can’t hear you,” Ramsey said.
“No,” Moreland said.
Bruce Frumkin, a forensic psychologist who specializes in comprehending Miranda rights, told the court “there’s no way in the world” someone with Moreland’s low comprehension could have understood the Miranda rights in the rushed manner in which Ramsey read them.
Frumkin has conducted about a dozen psychological evaluations of Moreland, and he evaluated the video confession.
Assistant State Attorney Hamid Hunter said it was clear Moreland understood what was happening because he changed his story in the interrogation. Moreland initially said he had not been in the store where the robbery occurred but gave a different account when confronted with video surveillance photos showing otherwise.
“He’s certainly aware of the consequences of telling the truth because in the very beginning of the interview he lies,” Hunter said.
For Moreland’s mother, Vivian Moreland, the doctor’s analysis of her son was spot on.
“A lot of things he don’t understand,” she said. “At home, I tell him something, he don’t understand. I have to keep telling him.”
She said she didn’t understand why deputies didn’t ask her to come to the station when they arrested her son, the way they had when they arrested her daughter. The distraught mother said deputies wanted her to convince her daughter to talk.
“She can read and write,” Vivian Moreland said of Iris. “He can’t read and write. Why they didn’t ask me to come with Chad?”
Moreland’s sister, Iris Moreland, who was also involved in the robbery, agreed to a plea deal that landed her a 40-year sentence.
Volz said he would make a ruling before May.