Teen’s ’91 confession forced, court rules in temple slayings

Williams is a Times staff writer.

A federal appeals court Thursday threw out the conviction of an Arizona man in the 1991 killings of nine worshipers at a Buddhist temple, ruling that police had coerced the then-17-year-old’s confession by interrogating him for 12 hours without a lawyer or supportive adult present.

The decision could signal that Arizona authorities might face judicial censure for their treatment of an 8-year-old boy charged with two counts of murder earlier this month. The boy was subjected to interrogation with neither an attorney nor a relative at the videotaped session.

In the earlier case, Johnathan Doody was 17 when he was relentlessly questioned and was told that others had implicated him in the temple slayings, rendering the confession he gave “involuntary” and insufficient to sustain his murder conviction, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The police treatment of Doody has been compared to that of the third-grader now in custody in the eastern Arizona community of St. Johns, charged with the Nov. 5 shooting deaths of his father, Vincent Romero, 29, and Romero’s co-worker Timothy Romans, 39, who rented a room at the Romero home.


The 8-year-old, whose identity is being protected because of his age, has been charged as a juvenile, but Apache County authorities have said that he methodically planned and carried out the killings and should be tried as an adult.

“Obviously there are parallels” between the two cases, said Victoria Eiger, who along with noted attorney Alan Dershowitz represented Doody in the federal appeals challenge. “Confessions are not reliable, and when you interrogate a minor, what you get is especially unreliable.”

A videotape showing portions of the child’s questioning was released by prosecutors to a Phoenix television station, which posted it on its website Monday. National news networks have since aired the excerpts from hours of questioning, during which the boy reportedly confessed without emotion.

Little has surfaced, despite intense media coverage, to shed light on any motive for the killings. Police initially speculated that the boy might have been abused, but before a judge issued a gag order in the case, investigators told journalists that neither school nor law enforcement records contained any indications of problems in the boy’s past.


In the ‘90s, the Doody case, involving the robbery of a temple west of Phoenix, also made national headlines.

The bodies of the nine victims, all of whom were of Thai descent, were arrayed facedown in a circle. They included six monks and a 16-year-old novitiate.

Doody, who was born in Thailand and brought to the United States as a child by his Thai mother and U.S. airman stepfather, was read his Miranda rights by the detectives who interrogated him in an all-night session weeks after the killings.

But he was “effectively ‘de-Mirandized,’ ” the appeals court agreed, by the interrogators’ demands that he confess or face indefinite detention and by their claims that the case was already “busted wide open” by other suspects.

The appeals court said the audiotapes of Doody’s statements, played for the jury, were the only substantial evidence against him.

With Doody’s conviction invalidated, his attorneys will move for his release from the state prison at Buckeye, Eiger said. Prosecutors are likely to set a new trial in Arizona state court.