A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a teenager's confession to nine killings at a Buddhist temple was involuntary, agreeing with a smaller panel's earlier decision.
The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns the confession of Jonathan Doody, who was 17 at the time of the killings of six priests, a nun and two helpers during a robbery at the Wat Promkunaram temple west of Phoenix.
Doody was sentenced to serve 281 years after he was convicted of murder, armed robbery and other charges in the 1991 slayings. He spent the past 18 years in prison but said he's innocent.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office is considering whether to file a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the case or seek to retry Doody without the alleged confession, office spokeswoman Molly Edwards said.
She said the office has 90 days to file with the Supreme Court. If it decides to seek a retrial, the office would send the case to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and attorneys there would decide whether to file charges anew, she said.
Doody's attorney, Victoria Eiger, called Thursday's decision a major victory for her client.
"But more than that, it's a victory for all of us because it's a vindication of the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution," Eiger said from her office in New York City. "We hope that this is the end, but if they seek review, of course we're prepared to defend this decision."
The court ruled that Doody's confession was involuntary partly because he wasn't properly read his rights by the officers interrogating him.
"We also hold that nearly 13 hours of relentless overnight questioning of a sleep-deprived teenager by a tag team of officers overbore the will of that teen, rendering his confession involuntary," the judges said.
The bodies at the temple were found arranged in a circle, and all had been shot in the head.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office first arrested four Tucson men in the killings, but they were released after investigators found they were not involved. Three of the men said they were coerced into confessing after being denied sleep, food and water during marathon interrogation sessions, while the fourth man never confessed.
Doody and another teen were arrested after investigators linked them to the murder weapon.
Co-defendant Alessandro Garcia, who pleaded guilty in the case to escape the death penalty in exchange for his testimony, said Doody was the triggerman. Doody was spared the death penalty because the judge couldn't determine whether he fired the weapon.
According to Garcia's testimony, the two wanted to steal large amounts of gold and cash they believed to be kept by the monks. Investigators said the robbery netted some cash and electronics gear.
The killings stirred outrage in Thailand, where monks are revered and where most men serve a brief stint as apprentice monks at some point in their lives.
Doody was born in Thailand to Buddhist parents. His mother belonged to the temple.