BY NICO VREELAND
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2010, The University of Arizona Press
Filed under: Nonfiction
On August 10, 1991, two members of Wat Promkunaram, a Thai Buddhist temple in west Phoenix, arrived there to find six monks and three civilians executed. The case grabbed headlines because of the innocent victims and the brutality of the murders (each person was shot several times in the back of the head, and it appeared that the killers had shot several in the face with birdshot in order to force them to open their safe). Local law enforcement organized a massive task force, which for a month came up with nothing.
Then, based on a tip from a delusional, possibly schizophrenic man, detectives from the local Sheriff’s Office arrested four young men from Tucson—more than a hundred miles southeast of Phoenix. “The Tucson Four” all had solid alibis, police even found video of one of them working at a dog track in Tucson at the time of the murders. Still, they interrogated the innocent men until all (except one) cracked, and confessed to murders they didn’t commit.
Stuart’s book focuses on those interrogations more than the murders itself. While it’s solidly written, it’s not quite curious enough to entirely satisfy. Stuart says he conducted more than fifty personal interviews in the course of writing the book, but Innocent reads like a dramatization of records found in a dusty basement. At times, that works well: for instance, the opening chapters describing the murder and the initial investigation are captivating. After that, Stuart gets bogged down in long, long chapters detailing hundreds of hours’ worth of interrogations and courtroom scenes.
In the first fifty pages, there’s a brutal crime and a twisting investigation, suspects and detectives, characters, plot, and drama. In the next fifty pages, detectives manipulate the suspects by playing down their Miranda rights, and interrogating them in a room with a map of the crime scene and other information (so details of the case would osmose into their minds). They force the boys to stay awake for long hours, routinely lie to them about their situation and the law, and keep them hungry but high on sugar. Basically, the detectives brainwash their suspects into not just confessing, but actually believing that they killed the monks.
It’s terrible, of course, but there’s a difference between importance in life and importance to a narrative. The interrogations, and the later courtroom scenes, are important, vital events, but they simply don’t need to be 80% of the book’s length.
Instead, Stuart’s time (and the space of the book) could have been better used answering the questions that the case brings up. Why were the police so dead-set on convicting the Tucson Four? (Even after they discovered the real criminals, who lived right near the temple and had never met the boys from Tucson, the detectives kept trying to link the Tucson Four to the crime.) The massive pressure on law enforcement, combined with the huge budget allotted to them (at one point the task force counted 226 members), surely added pressure to find the killers, but once they had found the real killers, what kept them going back to the Tucson Four? Stuart goes back to the same refrain: that, in 1991, nobody knew what a false confession was. It’s a thin rationale, though, and Stuart never interviews the detectives himself.
Then there are questions about the real murderers: which of the two real criminals was the trigger man and which was the scared follower? How did that night actually play out and what has happened to the two killers in the intervening 19 years?
It’s clear that Stuart has some preconceived notions about the Sheriff’s Office in charge of the case: from the very beginning of the book, he sets them up as incompetent investigators of questionable, bordering on nonexistent, moral fortitude. It’s that certainty on Stuart’s part that keeps him from investigating the most interesting aspects of this case, and keeps this book from being truly riveting.
After all, the Sheriff’s Office detectives use the exact same techniques on the guilty parties, and the confessions they elicit put the real criminals behind bars. These are tried and true tactics and, for the most part, legal. I’m certainly not condoning those actions, but it’s much more of a gray area than Stuart shows. There’s a lot more fascinating material here, and Stuart simply doesn’t dig deep enough to find it.
Still, Innocent is well written and a fast read, and it provides an interesting look at the sordid business of interrogation for anyone interested in the dark side of law enforcement. It also provides a lesson for any American: if you ever hear a cop read you your rights, ask for a lawyer. Ask for a lawyer immediately, and don’t say anything else until you get one.
Similar books: Newjack, by Ted Conover
[This book was printed on acid-free, chlorine-free paper containing a minimum of 30 percent post-consumer waste.]