A man serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Abbiegail Smith can withdraw his guilty plea as an appellate panel says police violated his Miranda rights.

Andreas Erazo pleaded guilty in 2019 to killing and sexually assaulting the young girl at his Keansburg apartment. He received a 75-year sentence for the murder and 50 more for the rape.

Detectives found Smith's body on the roof of a shed outside the window of Erazo's apartment hours after she went missing. She was wrapped in a futon cover and bound with computer cords.

Erazo confessed to stabbing Smith, who lived in an apartment on the floor below his.  He initially told detectives that the killing was accidental, though later said in court the murder was intentional.

Before pleading guilty in 2019, Erazo attempted to get the confession thrown out. The court denied his motion and Erazo pleaded guilty.

Missing Girl Found Dead
Andreas Erazo leaves State Superior Court Judge David Bauman's courtroom Friday, May 31, 2019, in Freehold, N.J., after he was sentenced to a life prison term for the murder of 11-year-old Abbiegail Smith. (Thomas P Costello/The Asbury Park Press via AP, Pool)
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Now the appellate decision has overturned the trial court's ruling. It found his confession should have been thrown out, giving Erazo a chance to withdraw his guilty plea and get a new trial.

Hours being questioned and waiting

The decision states detectives interrogated Erazo twice, but only read his Miranda rights for the second interview.

In their first unrecorded interview, two detectives told Erazo, who was 18 at the time, that he was simply helping in a missing person's investigation. The interrogation lasted almost an hour and a half without the detectives reading his Miranda rights.

The detectives asked Erazo questions regarding his day and background. It revealed his history of mental health issues and attempted suicide.

They never mentioned Smith's body had already been found, or that Erazo was a suspect.

After this first interview, the detectives took him to another interview room with recording devices. He waited for several hours before the pair of interrogators began asking questions.

The second interview started seven hours after Erazo first entered the police station. Once it began, the detectives read Erazo his Miranda rights and told him he was a person of interest.

They again questioned his whereabouts. They found inconsistencies between these answers and the ones Erazo gave in his first interview.

ASB 0601 Erazo Sentencing
Cecille Bennett Downy, right, consoles her sister Carol Bennett as she wipes tears away after addressing the court during the sentencing for Andreas Erazo, who pled guilty to murdering her daughter Abbiegail Smith. (Thomas P Costello/The Asbury Park Press via AP, Pool)
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What comes next in the case?

In their pursuit of a confession, the detectives told Erazo any statement he gave would only help him. They also assured Erazo the recordings could only be to his benefit.

The appellate court found this promise undermined the prior Miranda warning.

And while the trial court saw these as two separate interviews, the appellate decision states the second was a continuation of the first. It adds the detectives "exploited the information from the first to extract a confession in the second."

The decision goes further, saying the detectives targeted Erazo with these tactics due to his "age, lack of high school education, minimal experience with the criminal justice system, and his mental health issues, as well as the many hours he already spent secure inside the police station."

The decision grants Erazo the ability to withdraw his guilty plea. His confession would not be admissible in court for a new trial or plea.

The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office disagrees with the appellate court's decision.

"We are aware of the appellate court’s decision and will be filing a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court, because we believe this decision fails to align with the requirements of Miranda," spokesman Christopher Swendeman told New Jersey 101.5.

Erazo's confession is not the only piece prosecutors used against him. DNA evidence connected him to the rape, while a witness told detectives Smith was seen going into his apartment.

New Jersey 101.5 reached out to Erazo's public defender for comment on his possible next steps.

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Over the past few years, state lawmakers have taken on the challenge of dealing with accused child predators among the ranks of teachers and educators.

In 2018, the so-called “pass the trash” law went into effect, requiring stricter New Jersey school background checks related to child abuse and sexual misconduct.

The follow individuals were arrested over the past several years. Some have been convicted and sentenced to prison, while others have accepted plea deals for probation.

Others cases are still pending, including some court delays amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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