By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
COPS DON'T ARREST people just because they claim to have committed crimes. There are troubled people out there who will confess to practically anything.
More than 200 people tried to accept the blame for the Lindbergh baby kidnaping in the 1930s, and the six suspects who were eventually charged in the murder last August 10 of nine people at a Thai Buddhist temple west of Phoenix were not the only ones to confess to that crime.
Two young men from the west Valley still are in custody in connection with the temple murders. But the frustrated detectives of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office are still upset-and the public is confused-by the controversial dismissals of the original four suspects-Mike McGraw, Leo Bruce, Mark Nuøn¤ez and Dante Parker-from the internationally notorious case.
All four of the Tucson suspects had confessed and, despite their later recantations, the authorities had triumphantly charged them with murder and robbery. But investigators couldn't produce any physical evidence, and the charges were dismissed on November 22-over the protests of Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos.
The publicly released transcripts and tapes of the Tucson men's confessions don't clear the picture of what had happened that August night at Wat Promkunaram on the western fringe of the Valley. They do indicate, however, that confessions weren't beaten out of anyone. So the essential question remains: If they're innocent, why did they confess?
Why would anyone confess?" Sheriff Agnos says. That's an overriding question, and a hurdle that I have difficulty getting over. Why would four individuals-independently, not in the same room with one another, independently-tell us a series of events that intertwine into a single event? Keeping in mind that these are streetwise individuals, two of whom are ex-convicts, are they going to admit to a crime they didn't commit? Very, very unlikely."
Agnos has said it is possible to convict a suspect solely on the basis of a confession, but American courts are so skeptical of confessions that uncorroborated confessions made outside courtrooms are almost never the basis of convictions. If a suspect recants, police must find other independent evidence-circumstantial or physical-to link him to the crime.
This requirement for corroboration has evolved because, over the years, the law has been bedeviled by false confessors.
Against all reason, and despite what the investigators in the temple murder case say, innocent and apparently competent people do confess to crimes they did not commit. The question is not whether it occurs, but how often and under what circumstances.
And there is a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest it happens more often than common sense might allow us to believe.
Perhaps the world's reigning expert on false confessions is a detective-turned-psychologist from Iceland named Gisli Gudjonsson, who has studied more than 100 such cases over the past decade and has published numerous articles about them.
Attorneys retained by some of the freed Tucson men are contending that detectives coerced" confessions from their clients. The detectives insist that they did nothing illegal, improper or unusual.
But both camps may be right.
While the frequency of false confession is impossible to determine, Gudjonsson tells New Times, in an interview from his London office, that he is convinced it is common enough to warrant concern, and that some of those who falsely confess are able to convince their interrogators as well as judges and juries that they were involved.
The transcripts and tapes of the Tucson men's confessions have not been reviewed by the Icelandic expert-so far, he hasn't been consulted by either camp. But the confessions do reveal numerous basic similarities to those that Gudjonsson and others have studied.
Though detectives strive to sort through admissions of guilt by comparing the confessors' versions of what happened with the known facts, sometimes, as in the temple murder case, those facts are skimpy.
No eyewitnesses apparently survived the late-night attack. The temple itself is far west of Phoenix, on the edge of nowhere. The victims lived simple lives without ostentation and with a degree of seclusion-the housekeepers at the temple, for instance, were not allowed inside the monks' living quarters and therefore could not identify any missing property.
And all four of the Tucson suspects said their memories were fogged by alcohol and drugs. That, as well as the natural tendency of people to cosmeticize their involvement in foul deeds, could account for some discrepancies.
The transcripts of their confessions are rather like a Rorschach inkblotÏthe longer one looks at them, the more one sees.
Sheriff Tom Agnos says he and his men still believe the Tucson Four" have guilty knowledge of the crime.
I have to believe what the Tucson suspects told us-and all four of them told us they were there at the crime scene," Agnos says. There are some inconsistencies, but those are natural. No two people witness the same event in the same way. But there is sufficient circumstantial evidence from the statements of the Tucson individuals and the youngsters from the west side that I have to believe that [the Tucson suspects] were there."
It irks the investigators that some people think they took the word of an attention-seeking fool and wound up arresting four convenient scapegoats from a Tucson barrio.
It was Crazy Mike" McGraw's call to authorities from a mental institution that eventually resulted in the arrests of the Tucson suspects, but investigators say they treated McGraw's statements with proper skepticism.
They claim to have talked to other people in Tucson who have made statements implicating the four men, and the sheriff has gone so far as to say that releasing the Tucson suspects has made some people nervous, and caused some sources to dry up. Some people, the sheriff intimates, are afraid for their lives now that, as McGraw has put it, the boys are back in town."
Only the insane and the guilty confess, according to this line of reasoning, and thorough police work protects the insane. The detectives assigned to the sheriff's interagency task force say their tactics were simply good interrogation methods. After all, they say, they have interviewed more than 500 people in connection with the case, and more than 20 suspects have been subjected to extensive interrogation. At least two people who confessed were released after the task force decided they were cranks, the sheriff says.
But not only the insane or guilty confess.
Gisli Gudjonsson, who frequently examines suspects for British police agencies and testifies as an expert witness in British courts, says his research, which has appeared prominently in scientific and legal journals, has shown that to elicit false confessions, police do not necessarily have to become abusive or even overtly threatening. Sometimes, he says, it is enough for interrogators to ply the egos and the secret guilts of their suspects.
Sheriff Agnos says that is exactly what his investigators did. He has said a good interrogator must be part psychologist-that a detective's lone ally is often the conscience of a suspect. Gudjonsson's research suggests that sometimes police interrogators do their work too well. ON NOVEMBER 26, four days after he was released from the Maricopa County Jail, the murder charges against him dismissed, Leo Bruce met the press.
The occasion was to announce his filing of a wrongful-arrest lawsuit against the county and Sheriff Agnos, an action seeking fair, reasonable and adequate" damages for the time Bruce spent in jail, injury to his reputation and the emotional and physical suffering he says he continues to endure as a suspect in the killings at Wat Promkunaram. (Two other ex-suspects also have announced plans to sue.)
Fixed in the crossfire glare of television lights in a conference room at his lawyer's office in Phoenix, 28-year-old Bruce haltingly read a statement declaring his innocence. Occasionally, a tear would track his face and, beneath his starched white shirt and loosened bola tie, his chest would tremble.
Every day, I worry about the gas chamber," he whispered. The detectives' threats about the gas chamber are always on my mind. Every day I worry that some evidence will be made up or twisted as a basis to arrest me again."
According to Bruce and his lawyers, his initial arrest was a Kafkaesque nightmare. Described as a good son who worked two jobs and whose only prior offense was a speeding ticket, Bruce was plucked up by the task force as he checked his mail at his Tucson apartment on September 12. He said he originally thought the officers wanted to question him about the ticket, that he thought there might have been some misunderstanding since he had elected to attend traffic school rather than pay the fine.
During the next 24 hours, Bruce would not only implicate himself in the crime, he would tell investigators he personally executed six Thai Buddhist monks, an acolyte, a temple helper and an elderly nun. Bruce said he shot each of the victims in the back of the head with his .22-caliber rifle.
Then, a few hours later, on the afternoon of Friday the 13th, he told detectives he had made the whole thing up and that he had an alibi for the weekend of the murder. He said he constructed his confession from information gleaned from charts in the task force's prop" room. He told investigators that he was sorry he had misled the investigators and that he made up his story because of the pressure you guys were putting me under."
Bruce went to jail anyway. And he stayed there for more than 70 days, as doubts surfaced about the reliability of his confession and those of the three other Tucson men jailed in connection with the crime. Bruce's confession is particularly troubling because, unlike the statements made by the three other Tucson suspects-who sought to minimize their participation in the crimeÏBruce told police he pulled the trigger that killed the victims.
That revelation obviously was troubling. But even more disturbing is that Bruce apparently lied about the weapon he supposedly used.
Bruce said he used his own rifle to commit the temple murders, but ballistics tests eventually excluded his weapon as the murder device. Another, similar rifle was later linked to the slayings.
After the similar rifle was turned over to detectives by a 16-year-old Avondale Agua Fria High School student named Rolando Caratachea, west Valley teenagers Johnathan Doody and Alex Garcia, who were friends of Caratachea's, were arrested in connection with the murders. They also made statements to police implicating themselves. But nowhere in those statements did the juveniles implicate the Tucson men.
If it is reasonable to wonder how four innocent people could have all come to confess to a mass murder they did not commit, isn't it also reasonable to wonder why a suspect would admit to shooting nine people in the back of the head and then lie about the rifle?
The sheriff and his men insist the whole story has not come out about the Tucson men's involvement in the murders.
I believe we have sufficient information to go to trial," Agnos says. Three grand juries and a Superior Court judge said there is probable cause to believe these individuals participated in this crime and they should be held for trial. It never got to trial. It never got to a suppression hearing to determine whether or not the admissions, the statements they made, would be admissible in court."
Agnos contends there was no need to link the Tucson men with the two juveniles because the case against the Tucson men was strong on its own. And he says the transcripts and tapes of the Tucson men's statements prove there was no coercion. Everybody thought, `Well, these confessions would be no good,'" Agnos says. We now see that there was no coercion. ... They were treated respectfully, they were asked appropriate questions and they made statements regarding their participation in this crime. That is the link-they said they were there.
All of the transcripts of the juveniles have not been released. Those were only the preliminary ones in order to get a search warrant to go recover some items of evidence. Their stories changed, as did the four from Tucson. You cannot make judgments off the initial statements."
Like Bruce, the three other Tucson suspects confessed, but later denied they were involved and claimed their confessions had been coerced."
It would be more unusual, investigators say, if they did not recant.
During his own press conference, Leo Bruce could not satisfactorily answer why he confessed. In the klieg blast of public scrutiny, his protestations about the gas chamber and detectives in his face" seemed weak. He said he was naive, that he thought he could tell the investigators the truth and that the truth would set him free, that he didn't think he needed a lawyer because, after all, he wasn't (sob) guilty.
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