CONVENT — It had been three days since 12-year-old Talaija Dorsey was reported missing on the morning of July 1, 2014.
Family, friends and law enforcement had been searching for the St. James Parish girl and seeking the public's help to learn the whereabouts of a white car owned by John D. Celestine Jr., the then-live-in fiancé of Talaija’s mom.
At the time, Celestine, 47, was already being held on counts of obstruction of justice and false communications in Talaija’s disappearance. Authorities suggested publicly that a chance still existed that the youngster from northwestern St. James Parish would soon be able to celebrate the Fourth of July and return to summer camp.
“We still have a hope we’ll find her alive,” Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. said in an interview on the Fourth that year.
ST. JAMES — Authorities have made an arrest in the disappearance of a 12-year-old, booking the fiancé of the girl’s mother on obstruction of j…
Court papers now reveal that while authorities and the community were looking for Talaija, sheriff’s deputies and an FBI agent conducted an extended 4½-hour interrogation of Celestine the evening of July 2. He had been arrested and invoked his Miranda rights to remain silent and have an attorney present.
Judge Alvin Turner Jr., of the 23rd Judicial District Court, is being asked to decide if prosecutors can use those post-arrest statements at Celestine’s first-degree murder trial set for Oct. 15, four years after Talaija's death.
Prosecutors in St. James Parish are arguing that a California-based exception to the Supreme Court’s Miranda rules when a child’s life may hang in the balance, known as the “rescue doctrine,” should apply in this instance. Defense attorneys counter the doctrine isn’t recognized in Louisiana, thus the interview should be kept out of trial.
“The statements were involuntary, coerced and obtained in violation of his right to counsel,” defense attorney Susan Jones wrote in a motion.
Jones and prosecutors declined comment on the motion to suppress, citing policies on pre-trial publicity. Co-defense attorney Blaine Hebert did not return a message and email for comment by Wednesday.
Two days after the sheriff’s July 4 comments were made, the sheriff himself found Talaija’s body at the edge of a cane field off La. 3127 in west St. James. Celestine wasn’t booked on the first-degree murder count until several days later.
Tyler Cavalier, spokesman for District Attorney Ricky Babin, said prosecutors have not decided if they will seek the death penalty against Celestine. The slaying of someone younger than 13 is an aggravating factor needed for a first-degree murder charge in Louisiana.
Before Celestine’s initial arrest on the obstruction count, he had spoken with investigators for several hours and made a potentially damaging statement at his home on July 1. One of Talaija’s flip-flops was found in the trunk of Celestine's white Chrysler Concorde as he stood with family and authorities.
Celestine said, “It didn’t go down like that,” and was immediately handcuffed and arrested and became a suspect in Talaija's death. Turner has already ruled those statements will be admitted at trial.
Once Celestine was in custody, deputies read him his Miranda rights in the early hours of July 2. He requested a lawyer, court papers say.
Almost 19 hours later, on the evening of July 2, Sheriff’s Detective Julie Scioneaux woke up Celestine, who was lying down in an interrogation room, court papers say.
She told him that, based on the advice of the District Attorney’s Office, law enforcement officers could talk to him “without a lawyer, whether you’re requesting one or not,” a defense motion says, citing transcripts and a video recording.
During the interrogation, with his feet shackled, Celestine requested at least nine times to leave, end the interrogation or told investigators he did not wish to speak to them, defense attorneys said.
“OK, well, fine then,” Celestine told investigators at one point, “Then I ain’t going to answer you. I don’t got to answer you, right?”
Despite those requests, investigators pressured him to tell them what happened to Talaija and appealed to his sense of fatherhood, defense attorneys argued.
“Alive or dead, you got to help me find this girl, OK. It’s OK. Alive or dead, you got to help me,” the FBI agent is quoted as saying by defense attorneys.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Miranda precedent, which led to the now familiar warning seen in every police drama on television, is aimed at ensuring defendants understand they have a right to legal counsel and they don’t have to incriminate themselves.
In the mid-1980s, the Supreme Court created an exception to Miranda for public safety, allowing statements at trial that police get from defendants in emergency situations, even though the defendants never received a Miranda warning.
The California courts, prosecutors say, have extended a similar exception to Miranda — the rescue doctrine — when authorities are trying to find missing children and seek information from defendants, even after they received a Miranda warning.
That doctrine, which has not been applied by the Supreme Court nationwide, arose from a series of cases, including the infamous Polly Klaas slaying in 1993, prosecutors said. Prosecutors in St. James say the doctrine is analogous to the public safety exception long recognized by the Supreme Court.
“Here, Talaija Dorsey had been missing for over twenty-four hours. The investigators believed that the situation was urgent, and that (they) had no other course of action except to speak to John Celestine regarding her whereabouts,” prosecutors wrote.
Defense attorneys counter that the rescue doctrine has never been adopted in Louisiana or the federal courts and, even if it had been, Celestine’s statements were not voluntary and the extensive questioning was too broad to fit under the Miranda exemption.
Turner had not ruled on the motion as of Wednesday.