BY JOEL POLLAK
After serving fifteen years in prison for nine murders he did not commit, 34-year-old Jonathan Andrew Doody may soon be a free man. That’s partly thanks to Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz, who represented Doody before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court overturned Doody’s 1994 conviction last November, ruling that his confession under interrogation by police had been involuntary.
“Two things were clear about this case,” Dershowitz said in a telephone interview with the Record. “One, that [Doody’s] statements were coerced. And two, that he was not guilty.” The murders took place during a robbery on August 10, 1991 at a Thai Buddhist temple near Phoenix, Arizona. All nine victims had been staying at the temple; they were forced to lie face-down in a circle and were shot in the head.
Doody, who was seventeen years old at the time, was approached by police at a high school football game, then questioned overnight at the police station for more than twelve hours almost without interruption. After denying any involvement for several hours, and refusing to answer further questions, Doody finally told officers that he had gone with several friends to the temple on the night of the murders.
He told police that he thought the group intended to test the temple’s security system, and was standing outside the building when the shots were fired. He was subsequently charged with nine counts of first-degree murder and several burglary and armed robbery charges. The trial court denied his motion to suppress his recorded statements, and the jury convicted him on the felony-murder doctrine.
Soon afterwards, Dershowitz was approached to take up the case. “I was called by a Buddhist monk from Thailand in 1993, who asked me to look into the case. There were many in the Thai community who were convinced that the wrong person had been convicted, both due to the lack of evidence and due to the fact that the defendant was half-Thai, which was thought to have aroused bias against him.”
Dershowitz was already a controversial figure in Arizona. In 1987 he won the reversal of death sentences handed down to Raymond and Ricky Tison, two brothers who had been convicted under the felony-murder doctrine for shootings committed by their father and his cellmate. The Buddhist temple case was even more notorious, and dominated local headlines throughout Doody’s dramatic trial.
Of fifteen murder and attempted murder cases he has handled in his career, Dershowitz has won thirteen. “I like to take cases where everyone thinks the defendant is guilty,” Dershowitz said. “Often the crime itself is heinous beyond belief. I put heart and soul into them. And I have won the majority of them by using medical forensics and science. Procedural arguments are not enough-you really have the burden of proving the defendant’s innocence.”
In his investigation, Dershowitz examined every source of exculpatory evidence he could find, even old Soviet satellite photographs of the area that were put up for sale by the Russian government in the early 1990s. When Doody’s convictions were upheld in 1997, he and co-counsel Vicky Eiger filed a habeas petition in the federal district court. The court “sat on the case for years,” Dershowitz recalled.
Dershowitz and Eiger argued that Doody’s statements should have been suppressed on the grounds that he had received inadequate Miranda warnings; that he had been “de-Mirandized” by interrogators whose urgings made Doody believe he did not have the right to remain silent; and that his confession, made under such harsh conditions, had been involuntary. The district court disagreed and denied the writ.
The Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court in dismissing the first two arguments, but found the Miranda warnings had been given in a way that was too weak to protect against an involuntary confession “if conditions were otherwise conducive to such a confession.” After examining the records of the interrogation, the court agreed that the conditions were harsh enough to make the confession involuntary.
When Dershowitz spoke to his client, Doody was startled. “The case had dragged on for so long. He had been in jail for seventeen years. He had given up hope.” Though the “de-Mirandized” argument was a theoretical breakthrough, Dershowitz notes, it was better for Doody to win on the grounds of involuntariness, since the fruits of a confession outside the Miranda warning could still be used against him at a new trial.
Instead, Doody will never have to face trial again, provided the state does not appeal the Ninth Circuit decision. Dershowitz notes that the presiding judge, Marsha Berzon, had been at Harvard Law School to judge the Ames Moot Court competition the night before she handed down the decision. “She didn’t mention it at all,” he recalled. “She had written the decision, but her face gave nothing away.”
Dershowitz noted that several Harvard Law students had worked on the case as research assistants over the years. He also gave credit to Eiger and to his brother Nathan Dershowitz, who worked diligently on the case. And he offered advice to would-be defense attorneys: “You have to have the stomach to take a lot of criticism. Even Clarence Darrow was only well-regarded after his death. But you must challenge injustice.”