Photo by Patrick Mulvihill/CBS
STEPHEN NICHOLS, seen in a monitor used by CBS video crews last week, appeared in court again Wednesday. This time, Nichols appeared via video from Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility. At left is Nichols’ attorney’s co-counsel, Emilia Gardener, of Eugene-based Arnold Law.
A court hearing Wednesday mulled over release conditions and considered an alleged violation of Miranda rights for 2009 Eagle Creek murder suspect, Stephen Nichols.
Stephen Wagner Nichols, 40, a Bend man accused and charged with pushing his girlfriend off a cliff to her death in 2009 while hiking Eagle Creek Trail near Cascade Locks, appeared via video feed from jail before Judge John Olson at the Hood River County Courthouse.
Nichols appeared in orange jail attire from Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility.
The goal of the hearing Wednesday was two-fold: to decide the outcome of Nichols’ attorney’s motion to suppress the defendant’s words from his initial interrogation, and to set parameters for Nichols’ release from jail, should he come up with his $200,000 bail.
Nichols was charged with the murder of Rhonda Casto, 23, of Portland, via a secret indictment handed down April 2014, according to court records, and was ultimately arrested at San Francisco International Airport in February 2015. He was arriving from China.
Much of the discussion on Wednesday focused on Nichols’ arrest and interrogation in San Francisco, and whether Nichols had “equivocally” or “unequivocally” invoked his right to remain silent under interrogation by detectives.
According to court records and oral arguments by Michael Arnold, Nichols’ attorney, Nichols was pulled aside to an airport interrogation room upon arrival and handcuffed to a chair after detectives told him he was the subject of an Oregon homicide investigation.
Detectives of San Mateo County, Calif. read Nichols his Miranda Rights and questioned him regarding Casto’s death.
“It’s not something I want to talk about,” responded Nichols, according to a transcript filed in court.
From there, San Mateo Det. Wesley Matsuura said, “Well, I want to make sure I don’t have a serial murder walking into my jail.”
“I’m not a killer,” said Nichols.
“I don’t know that,” said Matsuura.
The daughter of Nichols and Casto, who was six at the time, was taken to customs during Nichols’ interrogation, according to the transcript. She is now in the custody of relatives, Rasmussen indicated in a bail hearing last week. Her name is being withheld from this story.
On Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Carrie Rasmussen argued Nichols was offered a chance to remain silent and instead consented to keep speaking — his statement was too ambiguous to be considered “unequivocal,” she said.
“The key word in Mr. Nichol’s statement is ‘want,’” said Rasmussen.
“This stays at most as an equivocal right to remain silent. He didn’t need to (speak), but he was properly Mirandized,” said Rasmussen.
Arnold cited former Oregon court cases concerning violation of a defendant’s right to remain silent, however Rasmussen responded that most of the cases didn’t clearly deliberate on the distinction of equivocal invocations.
Olson said he was “99 percent sure it was an equivocal invocation,” and had not changed his mind based on Arnold’s testimony.
The hearing shifted gears about an hour in to focus on release conditions enabling Nichols to bail out of NORCOR.
Olson confirmed that Nichols’ release would hinge upon a no-contact order with relatives of the victim, or any other individuals who didn’t wish to speak with Nichols.
He would also stay at a residence in Portland under surveillance of “electronic monitoring” managed by Washington County. The cost would come from a portion of Nichols’ bail.
Nichols is scheduled to stand trial next summer.
Rasmussen indicated the final trial date will need to be confirmed by the Hood River County Board of Commissioners, so the decision could take up to a month.
Nichols’ next appearance at the Hood River County Courthouse is set for November.