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Sunday, March 7, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Due Process Ran Amok In Arizona's Temple Case -- `Confessions' Spawn Calls For Police Reform

Los Angeles Times

PHOENIX, Ariz. - Just after midnight on Aug. 10, 1991, six Buddhist monks, two young initiates and an elderly nun were made to kneel on their temple floor, and one by one were shot dead for $2,600 and some cameras.

After a frustrating month of investigation, Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos made four arrests based on a tip from a patient in a Tucson mental hospital. The three men and the tipster were rounded up and separately interrogated for up to 20 hours. Finally, they all confessed to the mass murder.

After obtaining lawyers they recanted. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime, but based on signed confessions, they remained in jail.

A month later, using similar interrogation techniques, Maricopa deputies obtained a confession to another murder. George Peterson, 45, a drifter with a history of mental problems, said he killed a woman at campground near Phoenix in October.

As it turned out, the Maricopa Sheriff's Office had extracted five false confessions to murder.

A month later, a .22-caliber rifle used in the massacre at the Wat Promkunaram temple was traced to two Phoenix-area youths. One of the youths confessed to the temple crime, and months later, confessed to involvement in the campground murder. The 9mm handgun used to kill the woman at the campground was found in home of the youth's girlfriend.

REVIEW OF ALL CONVICTIONS

Faced with having to release five murder suspects after months in jail, and a civil lawsuit claiming false arrests and defamation, Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romely ordered a review of all convictions over the past four years based on confessions taken by sheriff's detectives.

"The length of the interrogations in these cases and some of the tactics used were questionable," he said.

"I called for the review to ensure that we don't have anybody else in jail with questionable confessions, and to restore public confidence that this will be fixed and not happen again," Romely said.

Romely's action has not satisfied legal scholars and defense attorneys who are demanding reforms in the way confessions are taken and used in the state that spawned the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda decision mandating that suspects be advised of their rights before questioning begins.

Court documents and confession transcripts in both murder cases, they say, show that investigators squeezed false admissions out of five innocent men by exaggerating evidence, badgering them with leading questions and threatening the death sentence.

"The problem of false confessions is nationwide," said Richard Offshe, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert in police interrogation tactics. "But only Arizona does them in the tradition of the Grand Canyon - spectacularly."

The so-called Tucson Four - Leo Bruce, Mark Nunez, Dante Parker and tipster Mychael McGraw - were cleared of murder charges in late 1991 when Alessandro Garcia, now 17, told investigators that he and Johnathan Doody, now 18, acted alone in killing the Buddhists during a botched robbery at the temple.

In a startling turn on Jan. 7 of this year, Garcia, in negotiating a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty, also admitted involvement in the Oct. 18, 1991, murder of Alice Cameron at a campground northwest of Phoenix. Garcia's statements exonerated Peterson, who among other traits has an obsessive desire to please others, according to his public defender, Kimberly O'Conner.

Peterson, who was in the campground when Cameron was shot twice in the back for $1 and change, changed his story during 20 hours of interrogation from witnessing an assault on Cameron by a Latino male to claiming that he accidentally shot the woman, O'Conner said.

QUESTIONABLE ACTIVITIES

Early on in Peterson's interrogation, detectives "reminded George of his right to have a lawyer. He said, `I wish I could afford one.' Then they went on with questioning," O'Conner said. Before long, "George was crying, disoriented and confused . . . they had to take breaks for him to compose himself and come back to reality."

Eventually, "They had George believing that he may have killed this woman . . . then they got him to say he might have had sex with the body, which made him suicidal," O'Conner said. "He then spent 14 months in jail."

In the temple murders case, investigators drove the original suspects about 110 miles from Tucson to the sheriff's headquarters in Phoenix.

There, they repeatedly offered the suspects soft drinks, cigarettes, hamburgers and pizza, and frequently asked if they needed to stretch their legs or use the restroom. Although repeatedly reminded of their right to do so, none of the men invoked their right to remain silent or request an attorney.

So why did these four men confess to a mass murder they did not commit?

"They were convinced that they were being railroaded or that a horrible mistake was being made," said Offshe, who has reviewed the cases on behalf of plaintiffs' attorneys in the civil lawsuit. "After that, they were told they could get less than the maximum penalty - but they had to act quickly to save their lives."

"It's a horrible Kafkaesque mistake in which (police say) there are witnesses and friends who say you did it," Offshe said. "People become so desperate to get out of this situation they will fasten on to anything to get out of it and worry about the consequences later."

Also arrested in connection with the temple murders was Victor Zarate, a 30-year-old employee at the Tucson Greyhound Race Track, who said investigators insisted that witnesses had tagged him as the shooter. Ratcheting up the pressure on his conscience, they held up a photograph of one of the victims saying, "How did it feel to shoot the old lady?"

"It was like a dream," Zarate recalled. "The more I told them the truth, the more they didn't believe me."

Zarate was cleared of first-degree murder charges and released three days after he was arrested when investigators turned up videotapes showing him on the job at the race track on the night the temple murders took place.

Now, he has joined Bruce, Nunez and McGraw in a $48 million civil lawsuit against Maricopa County, accusing it of violating their civil rights and of malicious prosecution.

"They dragged me through the mud and played Russian roulette with my life," Zarate said. "I'll never be the same."

PRESSURE FROM TOP BLAMED

Newly elected Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio blamed the wrong arrests on pressure that Sheriff Tom Agnos and his top brass put on deputies to quickly solve the worst mass murder in Arizona history.

"I have to apologize for what happened because it is a serious situation - you don't put innocent people in jail," Arpaio said. "You don't take the word of a nut in a murder confession, knock doors down or take suspects from Tucson to Phoenix."

"That's a lot of crap!" responded Agnos, who still believes the arrests were justified and the confessions worthy of murder charges.

"If someone wants to blame me, fine," said Agnos, who lost a bid for re-election in November. "But county attorneys found those confessions to be perfectly OK and felt they could go to trial and get convictions."

One thing seems clear, according to Paul Bender, a law professor at the Arizona State University School of Law.

"Some say we don't need Miranda rights because innocent people won't confess to something they didn't do. Well, these cases shows you there really is a problem," Bender said.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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