July 27, 2003, 11:20 A.M.
On July 4, 2003 Manuel Gehring walked off Memorial Field in Concord after the fireworks display with his children. The children, 14 year old Sarah and 11 year old Philip, have not been seen since. Mr. Gehring has been charged with their murder. These are the facts, basic and agreed upon, about this case. The rest of the story will (or should I say had better) be the topic of intense legal wrangling over the next months and will likely take years to sort out.
The problem with this story is that it appears that the police and the prosecutors have not been as interested in Mr. Gehring’s constitutional rights as they should be. When Mr. Gehring was arrested in California he was given a court appointed attorney. Gehring was arrested on child custody charges and detained in California. Gehring’s California attorney gave him several cards, which indicated that he did not want to talk to police and that he did want to exercise his fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination. Despite this admonition, Gehring was detained in California and was essentially missing and in police custody for over a week.
During that time police searched Gehring’s Concord condominium and began to announce their concerns for the children. Soon prosecutors declared the children dead and began a search for their bodies, all the while not disclosing the basis for the charges or the reason for the delay in returning Gehring to New Hampshire.
It now appears that Gehring “cooperated” with authorities at some point between his arrest in California on July 10 and his return to New Hampshire on July 22. It also appears that Gehring has given indications of psychological problems (he was held in a psychiatric hospital and not in a jail in California). The delay in returning Gehring to New Hampshire, his apparent psychological problems and Gehring’s early assertions of his fifth amendment rights point to a problematic prosecution.
Our Constitution, for good or for bad, protects a person accused of a crime from certain abuses by the state. The accused is given access to a lawyer, for example, so that he can be advised of his rights and so that he can make well advised choices about what he will and will not say. Here, Mr. Gehring’s California lawyer gave the correct advice: “until you speak with your New Hampshire lawyer, don’t say anthing to anyone about anything.” Gehring should have been brought immediately back to New Hampshire so he could be properly charged and so he could speak to his lawyer. To do anything but bring him directly back was a mistake.
We all understand that finding those poor souls who were apparently murdered is so very important to their family, friends and community. But we do them a serious disservice if, in our zeal to get information we fail to protect the rights of their killer and thus allow him to go free. This would be a tragedy, and it is a possibility.
The right to counsel, and other protections offered to the accused are intended to guard against improperly obtained confessions or evidence. Much of the law in this area is in response to a time when people were taken to a jail and beaten with a phone book, or deprived of food, water and access to counsel until they confessed to crimes they may or may not have committed. That may or may not have happened here, but it doesn’t take much to imagine the following conversation:
POLICE OFFICER: “So, Manny, we want you to relax and be comfortable, OK?”
If such a conversation elicited a response from Gehring, that conversation would be illegal. Any evidence derived from such a conversation would be inadmissible in court. That fact is not Manuel’s fault, nor the fault of the lawyer who would undoubtedly assert this position. If such a conversation took place (and what else could keep them occupied for 12 days together), Gehring’s rights would have been violated. By following the rules, police and prosecutors ensure the rights of the community at large are protected, and the rights of the individual are protected. The failure to do so does no good, and dishonors the victims of this terrible and unforgivable crime.
GEHRING: “Sure, OK.”
POLICE OFFICER: “Boy, what a shame that we can’t bring those beautiful children home and bury them because we don’t know where they are. Well, I guess because you don’t want to talk to us, we will never know. Of course, if you want to tell me, we could make this right. We know you killed them, Manny. Why don’t we talk about it?”