Just over thirty-six years ago, actress Natalie Wood died. Her husband, Robert Wagner, is the last known person to see her alive. In 2011, the investigation was reopened. What can we learn from this? It is simple: Don’t talk to the police.

Robert Wagner may not have committed murder or done anything else wrong. But whatever may have happened, he did not make the biggest mistake. He did not talk to the police.

In every case I know of where I legitimately believe that the defendant did not commit the crime alleged, the one thing in common is that the defendant talked to the police.

The problem is three-fold: First, there is the issue of false confessions. Second, there is the issue of weighing a plea when not guilty because it is easier to plead guilty anyway. And third is that when one talks to the police, their own words are not theirs any more, and, unless the interview is recorded, what a grand jury and a jury will hear is the police officers’ testimony about what the defendant is supposed to have said.

I could tell personal examples of how this has worked out in two of my own clients’ lives, but let’s just say that talking to the police when you are accused of a serious crime is never, never, never a good idea. Whatever a suspect says will either be considered an admission of guilt or a self-serving lie. And what most people don’t understand is that a statement that is characterized as a self-serving lie (whether it was actually made by the defendant, and whether or not it is actually false) can be considered very powerful evidence against a defendant, and may just be that thing that removes that reasonable doubt in the mind of a juror. It will certainly be enough for a prosecutor to hand to a grand jury to ask for an indictment.

I don’t personally believe that Robert Wagner is guilty in the death of Natalie Wood. But here is what I do believe: If Mr. Wagner had talked to law enforcement officers at any point in the last 36 years, he would have been indicted and tried, and possibly found guilty. If he had spoken to them before it became more common (but not universal) to record custodial interviews, he would have said enough for law enforcement officers to have said he said something amounted to enough evidence to proceed with.


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