Jane Frances Bolding, a registered nurse at Prince George's General Hospital who has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of a patient, was questioned at county police headquarters for more than 24 hours without a lawyer before she was arrested.
Her attorney criticized the police methods yesterday, complaining that her request for a lawyer "was denied" before she gave incriminating statements and that she suffered under the tiring interrogation.
But police officials defended their actions, saying Bolding had been given "appropriate" warnings about the seriousness of the questioning. Police also told her attorney that she had not wanted to see the lawyers.
Bolding's attorney, Fred R. Joseph of Hyattsville, said police only informed Bolding that lawyers were waiting to see her after police obtained her statements. "There's a serious question about police practices," he said.
"She spent 35 hours without having slept, and was being pounded with questions from various police officers," he added.
Asked if such actions were unconstitutional, Joseph said, "I certainly hope there's a constitutional problem, or we're all in trouble."
A criminal law expert at George Washington University, Gerald M. Caplan, said, "While prolonged custody does not, by any means, automatically mean that the confession is involuntary and coerced, the longer one is held, the more likely it is that her will was overborn by fatigue and perisistent questioning."
Under the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda decision, police must advise suspects of their rights to counsel and against self-incrimination when they are taken into "custody," meaning when they reasonably believe they are not free to leave. Once a suspect requests a lawyer, the questioning must stop.
Although suspects can waive their Miranda rights if they do so "knowingly and intelligently," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the Miranda decision, "the fact of lengthy interrogation or incommunicado incarceration before a statement is made is strong evidence that the accused did not validly waive his rights . . . . "
Police refused to say when she was given her Miranda rights or whether Bolding was permitted to eat or sleep during that time, or whether there were any breaks in the interrogation.
Even before the stage at which she was entitled to a Miranda warning, experts said, Bolding had the right to contact her lawyer.
According to a statement filed by police with court officials Wednesday night, Bolding confessed to killing Elinor S. Dickerson, 70, a patient in the hospital's intensive care unit, "by intentionally administering lethal amounts of potassium, knowing that this amount would cause the death and relieve Dickerson from further pain and suffering."
Legal experts said yesterday that the prosecutors' ability to use such statements from Bolding in court could be a critical issue in the case because they will need to prove that Bolding intended to kill Dickerson.
"It's her words that transform this from what might be a case of nonculpable homicide or manslaughter into the highest degree, the intentional taking of a life," said Caplan, who is also former counsel to the D.C. police department.
Caplan and other criminal law experts said they did not know enough facts in the case to determine whether police violated Bolding's constitutional rights.
But they said that Joseph's allegations that police questioned Bolding for a prolonged period and denied her requests to see a lawyer, if true, might mean that police violated Bolding's rights, and that, therefore, the statements could not be used in court.
The ability to use the statements, they said, would hinge on such factors as whether Bolding made the statements voluntarily; whether she was free to leave the police station at the time she made the statements, and, if not, whether she had been advised of her constitutional rights and had waived them.
Police said that Bolding voluntarily accompanied them to the police station in Forestville for questioning and was given "appropriate warning of the nature of the interview that was to take place."
On Wednesday, before Bolding was charged, a lawyer attempted to obtain her release on a writ of habeas corpus in the County Circuit Court. A judge denied the writ, without ruling on the legality of her detention, after police indicated she would soon be charged.