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'Innocent Until Interrogated' author to discuss coerced confessions


November 16, 2010

The issue of false confessions and the havoc they wreak on the justice system is the focus of the new book, Innocent Until Interrogated: The True Story of the Buddhist Temple Massacre and the Tucson Four.

Its author, Gary L. Stuart, who has tried more than 100 jury cases and is Senior Policy Advisor of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, will discuss the book with Dean Paul Schiff Berman at 4:30 p.m., Nov. 18, in the Great Hall of Armstrong Hall on the Arizona State University Tempe campus. Free tickets are available at https://innocentuntilinterrogated.eventbrite.com.

The book details the 1991 massacre of nine members of a Buddhist temple near Phoenix and the inexplicable false confessions, then recanting, of suspects dubbed, “The Tucson Four.” It also explores the heavy-handed questioning by sheriff’s officers and the bungling of the investigation, including failing for weeks to test a confiscated rifle that turned out to be the murder weapon, leaving the real suspects free long enough for one to participate in another murder.

Stuart finished writing Innocent Until Interrogated in September of 2007, and the book was published by The University of Arizona Press this September. In the meantime, the conviction of Johnathan Doody, the only suspect tried in the temple case, was overturned, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling that his confession was coerced. On Oct. 12, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated this decision and remanded the case for further consideration to the Ninth Circuit.

“It was the same officers, acting under the same command staff, in the same office, with the same recording equipment, working on the same crime,” Stuart said. “They coerced the confessions of The Tucson Four, so why would the Doody case be different? The issue wasn’t whether the confession was true or false, but whether it was freely given, or whether the suspect’s will was overborne by the officers.”

Stuart said he believes his book helps people understand that anyone can confess to a horrific crime.

“These people are not that different from you or I,” Stuart said. “They were young, ordinary, not particularly vulnerable. Two were community college students, all five had jobs, only one had a criminal record and it was a juvenile case many years earlier. They had girlfriends, spouses, children, parents.”

Yet, over the course of hours of interrogation -- deprived of sleep for days, given only caffeine and sugar, threatened with the death chamber, repeatedly told that others were naming them and making deals to save their own lives, isolated from family, badgered by screaming officers, shown photos and other crime-scene evidence and told they must have blocked the horror out of their memories, convinced the only way to get out of the room was to say what their persecutors wanted them to say -- they broke down.

Despite initially asserting their innocence, none invoked their right to an attorney, nor to remain silent.

“They thought they were innocent, that they had nothing to hide, that they were at no risk,” Stuart said. “They didn’t think they needed a lawyer, they didn’t think the law applied to them because they were innocent, one didn’t think it applied until trial.”

But even after all those hours, even after interrogators had convinced the men they must have been drunk and blocked it out, the confessions boiled down to only a few words, like “maybe I was in the car,” “maybe I was there.” There was no forensic evidence linking the men to the crime, no fingerprints, no footprints, no murder weapon, no items from the temple at any of their homes.

And once they were arrested and taken to jail, removed from the interrogation scene, they all immediately recanted.

And when the interrogators heard the suspects had recanted, and went to their supervisors raising questions about the confessions, they were told to be quiet, that their job was to get the confession and that the prosecutor had to convince the jury it was true.

Finally, when the rifle confiscated the same day the wrong suspects were brought in was finally tested, it was revealed to be the murder weapon.

“Within 12 hours, they have three new suspects in custody,” Stuart said. “They have the uniforms they wore at the crime scene, half of the loot, and high school kids are giving it up all over the place.”

The county attorney pulled the plug on The Tucson Four case, a judge issued written orders of exoneration, the first time in Arizona’s history, and Joe Arpaio, an unknown, ran for sheriff on the platform that he would eliminate coerced confessions. When he won, he cleaned house and ordered a damning internal confession that mistakenly became public.

After Stuart’s research into false confessions, he believes some simple steps can minimize the problem: record all custodial interrogations, restrict interrogations to daytime hours (no all-nighters with forced sleep deprivation), and create a change in the mindset of the interrogators.

“When you eliminate the coercion, will you get less true confessions? Yes,” Stuart said. “But what is the price we pay for false confessions?”

Judy Nichols, Judy.Nichols@asu.edu
Office of Communications, College of Law
480-727-7895