All in all, it was unconvincing. The catch in Bruce's throat seemed genuine, but there seemed to be no logic to his confession. No one had held a gun to his head, no one had slapped him around, no one had forced him to answer the detectives' questions. In fact, two people who had been picked up at the same time, including Bruce's friend Victor Zarate, had denied their involvement, asked for attorneys and been released without being charged. Leo Bruce was not retarded, he wasn't stupid and it was only easy to feel sorry for him as long as you didn't think of the nine murdered Buddhists.

Most reporters couldn't publicly express their private feelings; they took notes and did their jobs. But the day after the press conference, E.J. Montini, in his column in the Arizona Republic, gave voice to the unarticulated subtext of the event:

Looking at Bruce, at the way he quivered before the cameras, I could almost believe [in his innocence]. Almost."

Montini went on to write:
I don't understand how anyone, no matter how naive or psychologically manipulated, would confess to killing nine helpless people. And I don't believe a jury in any subsequent trial will understand it, either."

But it does happen.
In 1989, Gisli Gudjonsson and Breck LeBegue, a psychiatrist at the University of Utah, studied a case involving a United States Air Force sergeant they called E," who was accused of murdering another airman-S"-while the two were stationed in England. S was about to return to the United States and, on the night before his departure, he and E went drinking to celebrate.

Around midnight on the clear winter night, E and S were walking near some cliffs. Shortly after midnight, E telephoned the local-British-police to inform them S had had an accident and was badly injured. E told them he had called S to lie by his side to look at the sea and the moon when S had tripped and fallen over the edge of the cliff.

S had suffered multiple injuries and was dead by the time his body was retrieved. The autopsy showed his blood-alcohol level to be .212 (more than twice the level considered intoxication in Arizona). While E did not undergo a blood-alcohol test, he told authorities he had consumed at least seven pints of beer during the five hours prior to S's death. British authorities were satisfied S's death had been accidental. They noted that E seemed very distraught over his friend's fate and handed the case over to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. As a matter of routine, E was asked to take a polygraph test. When four tests administered to E showed a deceptive outcome, he was taken into custody by OSI officers and, over the course of three days, interviewed for a total of 24 hours.

During the questioning, E made two self-incriminating admissions. He told investigators he moved his illegally parked car after calling police the night S died, and that he took several beer bottles from the car and threw them over the cliff. He explained he had been involved in several alcohol-related incidents and that another problem might put his Air Force career in jeopardy.

The second, and more incriminating, admission involved two versions of S's death E said he could see in his mind. The first was the version accepted by the British authorities, that S had slipped and fallen to an accidental death. The second picture" involved E's becoming angry with S while at the edge of the cliff, shaking S and allowing him to fall to his death. Gudjonsson and LeBegue contend E was placed under a great deal of psychological pressure by the OSI agents, who had blind faith" in the validity of the polygraph and who told E the machine never lies." Apparently, the officers did not know that emotions other than the act of lying could result in deceptive responses on the polygraph, and they were genuinely convinced of E's guilt. E eventually told his interrogators that if the polygraph says I did it, then I must have done it," and signed a confession.

The OSI officers also said they deliberately lied to E in order to secure his confession, telling him, for instance, that they had consulted a psychiatrist who told them E had to have been involved in S's death.

They also admitted that they manipulated E's sympathy and guilt" by telling him he owed it to S and S's family to admit his involvement in S's death; they promised E his confession would make him feel better.

When Gudjonsson and LeBegue examined E, they found he had a verbal IQ of about 85 and a strong tendency to avoid conflict and confrontation when in the company of people in authority."

He was a suggestible individual who had difficulty in detecting discrepancies between what he had observed and misleading information that had been suggested to him," Gudjonsson says. At E's court-martial, Gudjonsson testified that E's confession was unreliable. Though Gudjonsson did not discount the possibility that E may have been involved in S's death, he noted that the stress of watching a friend fall to his death, coupled with the enduring psychological vulnerabilities" E possessed and the nature of the OSI interrogation, made the suspect susceptible to the unfounded scenario presented by the investigators.

A judge later ruled E's confession had been involuntary and dismissed the charges against him.

Gudjonsson and LeBegue say they believe E's case was an example of what they call a coerced-internalized" false confession-a situation that arises when a suspect is convinced, at least temporarily, of his guilt by the suggestions of investigators and the currents of his own conscience. They point out that while the ground truth" of S's death will never be known, since no forensic evidence will ever surface to prove E did not kill S, nothing but his own confession and the unreliable polygraph test implicated E. There was no motive, and E's original explanation of S's accident had been highly plausible given the circumstances.

Gudjonsson points out that E's case is very similar to the highly publicized case two decades ago of Peter Reilly, a Connecticut man who came home one night to discover that his mother had been murdered.

He notified police, who subsequently gave him a polygraph test. On that test, Reilly appeared to be lying about the circumstances of his mother's death, and was confronted with the results. He denied any knowledge of the murder at first, but he eventually told investigators he must have" killed his mother, and signed a confession. Two years later, evidence surfaced that proved Reilly could not have committed the crime.

Both E and Reilly may have confessed, Gudjonsson says, because their investigators inadvertently implanted internalized false memories" (also called pseudomemories") in their minds. In both cases, he says, the investigators were probably acting in good faith, convinced they had the right suspect. And both suspects, while within the bounds of sanity, were particularly susceptible to the suggestions of the interrogators. Both suspects were confronted with evidence they believed to be incontrovertible, and Gudjonsson believes they both distrusted their own recollections and created scenarios to fit the facts."

There is experimental evidence from several studies that pseudomemories are produced reliably and tend to coexist with pre-existing memories rather than distorting them," Gudjonsson says. It means that the original memory is never completely lost."

Some people, it seems, can be talked into remembering anything.
When police talked to unemployed, 19-year-old Mark Nunez about his possible involvement in the temple murders, however, he had trouble remembering anything. Nunez denied he did anything, but he usually expressed it in a more indirect way, like this: I know I wouldn't have done anything like that."

Nunez said he had a drinking problem and was subject to blackouts, and that most of his weekends were spent in a boozy fog. A high school dropout who had earned a GED and enrolled in Pima Community College a few days before he was picked up, Nunez doesn't drive-he says he doesn't want to because too many bad things could happen with him behind the wheel.

Nunez was the second of the Tucson suspects to be brought in for questioning in the case. He was fingered by the irascible Mike McGraw, who rode through the streets of south Tucson in the back of a patrol car while people from the neighborhood taunted him, saying, Snitch, snitch." Like Leo Bruce, Nunez had never before been arrested.

Nunez was questioned for only a few hours before he began to make incriminating statements, according to transcripts. His first admissions came in the form of dreams, and he wept through most of his confession," while Detective Mark Mullavey and Sergeant Russ Kimball assured him he was taking a major step" toward his future." The detectives also commented on Nunez's intelligence several times, telling him he was obviously a bright guy," and commended him for taking charge of his life.

As with all the other suspects, the interrogators hinted that they knew what had happened at the temple and who was involved. They suggested that if Nunez didn't talk to them, a jury would not be sympathetic toward him, that all he needed to do was join the team" and supply some details. Toward the end of the transcripts, Nunez betrayed what might be a telling bit of unsophistication. After giving the detectives a version of the crime and admitting his complicity, he asked, Can I go home tomorrow?"

Reading and listening to Nunez's statements, it is easy to believe that he is genuinely uncertain about whether he might have been involved in the crime. He seems easily confused and often distrusts his own memory.

You're telling me...I watched, I was involved in a murder," Nunez said at one point in the tapes. I'm scared, I don't know where to go, I don't know what to do, what to say. And you're telling me I know something I don't know."

A few moments later, task-force commander Pat Riley suggested that the police had physical evidence implicating Nunez-evidence that they, in fact, didn't have:

Riley: Is there any reason why your fingerprints and your hair and anything else from your body would be where this murder happened?"

Nunez: No. No."
Riley: No reason at all?"
Nunez: No."

Riley: So if we compare, say, whatever prints we have with your prints, we're not going to find Mark Nunez's prints?"

Nunez: I don't believe so."
Riley: That's not very convincing."
Riley's interrogation techniques are apparently well within the accepted bounds of police behavior. Agnos and his investigators have said it is acceptable to mislead suspects, and interrogators want suspects to believe they already know the answers to the questions they're asking. Other people have been subjected to rigorous questioning in connection with the temple murders, just as intense as that undergone by the temple suspects, some of the investigators on the case contend.

But Gisli Gudjonsson points out that, according to his research, there is a danger that such pressure can result in the suspect making false admissions.

Whether police pressure results in a [false] confession depends on at least two factors," Gudjonsson says. One factor, he says, encompasses a tendency to become easily confused when placed under pressure, lack of confidence in one's own memory and reconstruction of events and susceptibility to suggestions." The second factor, according to Gudjonsson, is simply the way police interrogate people.

He's talking about the good-cop/ bad-cop routine, in which one interrogator may act friendly while another acts belligerent.

Gudjonsson says coerced-internalized confessions are more often produced by gentle, subtle and manipulative-good cop"-questioning, while another type of false confession, what Gudjonsson and his colleagues call coerced-compliant," is the result of more aggresssive, confrontational, bad cop" techniques.

According to transcripts and tapes, the investigators who interviewed the Tucson suspects employed both types of questioning with each suspect, though for the most part they seemed to take a softer route, flattering them and reassuring them that their involvement in the killings didn't necessarily place them beyond redemption.

Mike McGraw's interview was possibly the most frustrating for the investigators, the transcripts indicate. McGraw seemed to want to give the impression that he knew a lot about the case, though much of the information he gave investigators was flat wrong.

A convicted car thief who has been described by neighborhood residents as a pathological liar, McGraw frequently talks about suicide, and that's apparently what landed him in the Tucson Psychiatric Institute. While there, he made a series of telephone calls to Tucson police that started the whole messy chain of events. (Shortly after he was finally released as a suspect in the temple murder case, McGraw returned to the mental hospital.)

part 2 of 3



All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >