Gary Stuart

 

On his book Innocent Until Interrogated: The True Story of the Buddhist Temple Massacre and the Tucson Four

Cover Interview of September 20, 2010

A close-up

If I could gently nudge a browser in a bookstore to open Innocent Until Interrogated, I’d probably point her to the text on page 221.

It’s only a few lines about what happens when someone kills, someone else investigates the killing, a prosecutor brings charges, and a judge empanels a jury to hear the case.

I begin with the obvious:

Murder trials fascinate the public, and many people see a confession to murder as the ideal civic solution. The perpetrator takes responsibility, and the public sleeps soundly. But murder trials rarely examine how the confession came into being: whether it is a product of the suspect’s guilty mind or of the interrogators’ will and perseverance.

Well-meaning jurors, like well-intentioned cops, sometimes fall victim to tunnel vision.

Cops are tough, and they know the guy on the other side of the interrogation table is just as tough.  The perp has been Mirandized, so let’s get on with it.  In the atmosphere of suspicion that pervades the interrogation room, the cop comes to believe—despite the denials—that he did it.  That belief grows and clouds the cop’s vision until that’s all he can see.

And so it is with juries. A juror does not have any training for the job of being a juror.  Jurors don’t have manuals to guide them.  They have only a judge giving them instructions and expecting them to do their best.

In the trial presented in this book, the State offered as evidence all seventeen of the audiotapes made during the interrogation of one defendant.  The jury heard his juvenile voice from high-fidelity headsets as he confessed to being there when the monks were killed.  They heard him admit to planning the war game he said he thought was happening.  They heard him admit to being in the temple when his two friends killed the monks.  They heard him deny killing anyone.  He confessed to being there, and the judge said that that was enough to find him guilty of felony murder.  So they convicted him.

But it was his words that convicted him, not his actions.  And it was the audiotape that the jurors heard, not him.  He never took the stand, never uttered a sound in open court for the three months of the trial.  Did it matter?  Who cares, some may have said.  A confession is a confession, right?

But this jury, this particularly thoughtful jury, looked deeply at both the defendant and his interrogators.  They acquitted the defendant of premeditated murder, based on his audiotape, while rejecting the accusations made by his “co-conspirator,” who was not on trial.  That juvenile got a lenient plea bargain as the quid pro quo for testifying against his former high-school buddy.

The jury figured out what the investigators never did: It’s not always the confessor who did the deed; sometimes it’s the accuser.

In the police station, the interrogators were the accusers.  At trial, those same accusers represented the people of Arizona at the prosecution table.

But this jury looked beyond the audiotapes. They measured the State’s witnesses.  They balanced the State’s power against the defendant’s seeming helplessness in the interrogation chamber.  Then they asked themselves the important question: Is this confession true, and was it made voluntarily?