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."