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The Problem with Custodial Interrogations
A newly published UA Press book written by former Arizona Board of Regents member Gary L. Stuart delves into the validity of murder confessions when they are feverishly pursued by law enforcement agents.
In a newly published book about what is considered Arizona's first mass murder, former Arizona Board of Regents member Gary L. Stuart opens on the morning of Aug. 10, 1991, in a case that – to this day – has not yet been laid to rest.
That day, six priests, a nun and two others were found dead at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist Temple of Arizona. Soon thereafter, police had coerced confessions out of several men who each turned out to be innocent.
Just published by the University of Arizona Press, "Innocent Until Interrogated: The True Story of the Buddhist Temple Massacre and the Tucson Four," serves to explain how level-headed people can be talked into a false confession. Stuart also attempts to explain what an innocent person suspected of murder must experience before breaking.
"Stuart has a lot to say, and the book is fantastic," said Holly Schaffer, publicity manager for UA Press, adding that Stuart will speak about his book at two upcoming events at the UA. "It reads like a novel and has gotten very good reviews so far."
The book's publication is particularly timely, she added.
In 2008, several U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit judges called for a new trial in the case of Johnathan Doody who, at age 17, confessed to the killings.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Doody’s confession could not be used as evidence in court because he was not properly given his Miranda warnings. The court also deemed that Doody's confession had been coerced.
In the book, Stuart – a UA alumnus and attorney in Phoenix who has previously written about Miranda rights – detailed the killings that took place at the temple, which is located in Waddell, Ariz.
More than two months after the Temple killings, Alice Marie was killed, and another false confession was extracted in her case, Stuart said.
"Ultimately, the investigators learned that she was killed by one of the two men who committed the Temple killings, a fact they would have know but for their failure to test the murder weapon in their possession before the Cameron murder occurred,” he said.
For the book, Stuart, who has litigated more than 100 jury cases in Arizona and elsewhere, studied news reports, legal records and evidence presented in the case. He also conducted interviews with several dozen psychologists, lawyers and other experts.
Of great concern to Stuart is the custodial interrogation, which has been outlawed in other countries.
"A lot of rational, good-hearted people can't believe that they could end up in a case like this," Stuart said of the defendants.
"But I wrote the book to teach ordinary citizens how bloody easy it is to extract a false confession from an innocent person under the right circumstances," he said.
In the case of the temple murders, police interrogated suspects for dozens of hours, often using false information to lure them into making a confession, he said. Suspects were kept in dark rooms with interrogators taking breaks every two hours, all the while feeding information in a way "to make you doubt yourself," Stuart added.
He gave the example of Leo Bruce, whom he has met.
During interrogation by 11 different people over a period of two days, Bruce confessed that he held a .22-caliber rifle, walked around the victims "slowly and methodically" and shot each of them individually. He was able to describe the victims and the room where the murders occurred in great detail.
"The interrogation is long, scary and exhausting to the point that hopelessness becomes a reality," Stuart said, adding that Bruce had never, in fact, been to the temple.
But he, like the others forced to spend hours in the interrogation rooms, had begun to "lose all contact with reality," Stuart also said.
"So how do we protect the people who are innocent? We don't interrogate them at night and for longer than four hours," Stuart said. "And we don't interrogate juveniles without the presence of an adult, friend, teacher or someone else present."Such was the case of Doody whom police convinced not to invite his father in for the interview, he also said.
The writing of "Innocent Until Interrogated" coincided with the publication of "Miranda: The Story of America's Right to Remain Silent," which centered on the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision that resulted in the establishment of Miranda rights.
In fact, Stuart began writing the former as a result of his work on the latter.
"I remembered that there were very famous false confessions – the Temple murder, the Norwalk 4, the Memphis 3, the Green River cases," said Stuart, who also has written two legal textbooks.
"What happens frequently in these cases is that if the Miranda warnings are given and if the suspect waived their rights, then their confessions are assumed to be true," he said.
That is not to say he does not support law enforcement officials. He does. And Stuart also agreed that it is important to solve criminal investigations both quickly and efficiently, acknowledging that many coerced confessions are, indeed, true.
"But once a police office believes a suspect is guilty, what started as an interview becomes a true custodial interrogation that relies on trickery and deceit and outright lying," he said.
"And, legally, this is OK because the system is predicated on the false assumption that people who confess to crimes have committed them. But this," he said, "is not always the case."
With his book, Stuart sends an important message.
"I hope people will come to realize that these Miranda warnings and decisions are still important in American culture, and important to us all," Stuart said. "And if you find yourself in a situation where you are innocent and you are given the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present, you should take it."