Longform

THE ULTIMATE TRUE-OR-FALSE TEST

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."

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Philip Martin