Sunday, October 17, 2010
Innocent Until Interrogated by Gary Stuart
This is an account of the investigation, trials, appeals and civil lawsuits of the 1991 murder of nine Buddhist Monks at the Wat Promkunaram Temple in Maricopa County, Arizona. In the early days of the investigation, conducted by a huge multi-agency task force, four innocent suspects were induced to confess to the crime. Eventually another suspect, whose guilt was established with the only corroborative evidence apart from confession in the case, obtained a non-capital plea bargain at the expense of his testimony against his 'partner in crime' who was subsequently released on appeal. A seventh suspect confessed in a related murder he did not commit .
Most Americans, jurors and police believe that only guilty people confess. But this is not true. A comprehensive compilation of wrongful convictions in potentially capital cases in the United States from 1900 to 1985, published in 1987, indicated that “police-induced false confessions was the primary or contributing cause of wrongful convictions in 14.3 per cent of the cases examined.
The case in Arizona demonstrates the typical manner in which false confessions are obtained. First, investigators anxious to solve a horrendous crime as quickly as possible, give too much credit to the inconsistent testimony of an unreliable witness, without adequately checking-out his/her various assertions of facts or opinion. Second, search warrants are issued based on these lies, guesswork inconsistencies- glossed over ('cleaned-up') or omitted in the paperwork submitted to prosecutors or Courts by the investigators. Evidence gathered with such warrants may be mishandled or wrongly identified as pertinent to the case being investigated, while, in the rush to judgment, other evidence is not collected or simply ignored.
Then the suspect (s) are rounded up and interrogated for long periods of time without the opportunity to rest, given proper food or clear and proper warnings about their right and the importance of not talking to investigating officers without an attorney. The option of confession is often presented with the promise of mitigating the suspect's ultimate sentence. Officers will often lie about the facts in the case and the testimony of other suspects. Although many portions of the interrogation are recorded, long parts are not and their contents only become available in the sometimes 'willfully constructed' summaries of interrogators or their executive officers.
Officers generally do not believe that if a suspect is innocent he/she would continue to submit to examination, and though posing “as a friend' who is just 'trying to help', relentlessly deny that the suspect's protests of innocence are true. Throughout the lengthy and exhausting interview the cops often provide the suspect with detailed information about the crimes being investigated so that when the defendant finally confesses in order to escape the nightmare of his tortured situation, his story will be at least modestly consistent with the way officers perceive it.
In most cases the suspects who falsely confess to a crime have their own problems such as a marginal economic status, educational deficits, language barriers and emotional problems. They may have had drug or alcohol induced blackouts in their previous experiences and thus remain uncertain that, if they had committed the crime of which they are accused, they would remember it. They may have little faith in the justice system and believe that confessing will mitigate their ultimate sentence.
In this case the four individuals who falsely confessed were eventually released after many months in prison, and considerable damage to their personal lives. The conduct of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department was so egregious that their insurance company was forced to settle the lawsuits of the wrongly and unlawfully accused and arrested individuals with substantial amounts of money. All the primary offenders in the Sheriff's department were first demoted and then left public service within two years. Newly elected Sheriff Joe Arapaio instituted 'reforms'. Never-the-less, 11 years later MCSO detectives interrogated a fifty-year old machinist named Robert Louis Armstrong and extracted a false confession to a triple murder that had gone unsolved for five years. Instead of correcting his deputies' interrogation abuses, Joe's new policy merely documented them on videotape. The same techniques and shortcomings that were so egregious in the Temple Massacre case – coercion, inattention to detail, lazy acceptance of unreliable informants and an easy confession- marred the Armstrong case.