Blog Post

False Confessions in Arizona

False confessions occur more than reported on in the news. Arizona’s deadliest shooting involved four false confessions and months in jail for those falsely accused of the murders. Read how these false confessions impacted Arizona’s history and gave rise to Joe Arpaio.

Truth be told, you rarely hear about false confessions in the news. After all: what is there to write about?

Think about it: if a news outlet were to write that a person was accused of a crime, and then later have been acquitted of that crime, it wouldn’t make much news. Whether for lack of physical evidence, conflicting evidence, an alibi, or false confessions, the point here is that such dismissals do not warrant much attention. Once a crime has been committed, our society demands answers, and that involves seeking those responsible to blame.

As a result, many remain uninformed about arrested people who later get acquitted of a crime.

The lack of dismissals in the news leads to everyday citizens believing that false confessions simply do not happen, only because they are so rare. That is not the case.

This piece will reach back into Arizona’s history during the 1990s, and discuss how false confessions led to a frustrated public, unsolved murders, and over 2 million in lawsuit costs for the State of Arizona.

The Waddell buddhist temple shooting

In 1991, 6 Buddhist monks, two initiates, and one elderly nun were all shot to death at the Wat Promkunaram Temple in Waddell, Arizona. The weapons used were a 2-gage shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle. All victims were shot in the back of the head, execution-style, and placed face down in a circle.

To date, this incident is the largest mass shooting in Arizona’s history.

After an initial investigation, the state had five suspects in custody. As it turns out, four of the five suspects were identified by Mike McGraw, a patient in a Tucson mental hospital who called the Maricopa sheriff’s investigators, alleging that he knew who did it and provided the name.

What’s remarkable about this story is the interrogation surrounding the arrest of the four suspects. One interrogation lasted 13 hours. This is important because determining whether confessions are voluntary under the law requires considering the length of an interrogation. Withrow v. Williams, 507 U.S. 680, 693-94 (1993).

Ultimately, the voluntariness determination depends on a weighing of the circumstances of pressure against the power of resistance of the person confessing. Dickerson v. the United States, 530 U.S. 428, 434 (2000) (quoting Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 226 (1973)).

As Justice Frankfurter stated over 70 years ago regarding confessions:

” A statement to be voluntary of course need not be volunteered. But if it is the product of sustained pressure by the police it does not issue from a free choice. When a suspect speaks because he is overborne, it is immaterial whether he has been subjected to a physical or a mental ordeal. Eventual yielding to questioning under such circumstances is plainly the product of the suction process of interrogation and therefore the reverse of voluntary. We would have to shut our minds to the plain significance of what here transpired to deny that this was a calculated endeavor to secure a confession through the pressure of unrelenting interrogation. The very relentlessness of such interrogation implies that it is better for the prisoner to answer than to persist in the refusal of disclosure which is his constitutional right . . . “

Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 53-54, 69 S.Ct. 1357, 93 L.Ed. 1801 (1949).

Despite the length of these interrogations, all four individuals, now dubbed the “Tucson Four”, gave written confessions, and all four were charged with the murders. At trial, the State of Arizona had very little to go on except the four confessions. In other words, the state’s only direct evidence was the written confessions.

However, it was discovered that one of the murder weapons did not belong to any of the four suspects. During the months leading to the trial, the police found the .22 rifle belonging to a 16-year-old named Johnathan. Upon questioning, Johnathan and his friend Garcia used the .22 and the shotgun to rob the Buddhist temple of $2,600. However, Johnathan panicked when he thought one of the subdued monks recognized him as a temple-goer. In response, they shot all the victims in the head.

After months of being held in jail, the “Tucson Four” was released. Later, the real suspects who committed the murders were found, arrested, and convicted for the crimes.

Together, the “Tucson Four”, and another sole suspect who refused to confess, sued the State.

Flaws with the investigation

The media became very concerned with the Tucson Four after their release. Later, it was discovered that the investigation was beginning to focus on Johnathan and Garcia after finding the murder weapon. However, the investigation stopped after McGraw’s phone call led to the initial arrest of the Tucson Four.

Despite leads that focused away from the Tucson Four as the prime suspects, the murder weapon sat in the detectives’ office for weeks without being tested.

Flaws with the interrogations

While the new evidence revealed that the investigation was poor, the most alarming part of this case involved the confessions themselves. It was discovered that the men were coerced into confessing.

Investigators extracted false confessions by exaggerating and lying about the evidence they had. Badgering all suspects with leading questions were done, and threats of the death penalty were issued to all four men as well.

One Maricopa homicide chief stated that the interrogators hammered on the suspect until their will was broken, and that “after a while, they were willing to say anything”.

These errors on behalf of the Maricopa’s sheriff department, led by Tom Agnos, gave Joe Arpaio just enough political ammunition to unseat Agnos in the 1992 sheriff race.

Collectively, the men from the Tucson Four received 2.4 million dollars from the Maricopa County for these flaws.

Final Thoughts

This tragic story only exemplifies the power of false confessions, and how impactful they can be in other people’s lives. I have come across other cases that involve the same interrogation tactics: lying, berating, pressuring suspects, and even threatening them with the death penalty in some cases. These tactics are all too common for investigators, and I don’t want these tools to be used on you.

The bottom line takeaway from this post is this: if you are ever arrested, the best decision you can make is to ask to speak to your lawyer. I cannot stress this enough. Do not speak to the police. It is always better to keep quiet and assert your legal rights. For more on this topic, click here.

If you or your loved one confessed to a crime that did not occur, call me at (480) 545 – 0700, or visit

In an interrogation room, a person in orange prison attire sits at a table, facing two attorneys, one of whom is presenting a document, in a scenario that may be used to discuss the complexities of false confessions in the legal system.

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