Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Scenes of a Crime

If you’ve ever wondered how an innocent person could confess to a crime, have I got a movie for you. A terrific April for documentaries continues with Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh’s “Scenes of a Crime,” a case study in police coercion of false confession through the use of interrogation techniques that, while legally sanctioned, empirically produce false ...positives and undermine the truth-seeking process. Of course, the notion that cops and prosecutors are motivated primarily by a desire for justice and engage in objective fact-finding is a relic of a bygone, rose-colored worldview. Today’s law enforcers are measured by outcomes, arrests, convictions. Guilt and innocence are considered tangentially, if at all.

A gentle giant named Adrian Thomas stepped into this Kafkaesque demimonde one early morning in 2008 in Troy, New York, where the cops interviewing him knew – but didn’t tell him – that the four-month-old son he’d rushed to the hospital was already dead. The attending physician had taken a cursory glance at the boy and melodramatically diagnosed the cause of death as blunt force trauma. The cops assumed the hulking Thomas had shaken or slammed his son, and over 10 torturous hours set about lying to, cajoling, threatening, and browbeating Thomas to confess – which, already an emotional basket case over his son’s condition and in a state of sleep deprivation, he ultimately did.

We next meet Thomas’ medical experts. They are the leading lights of pediatric neuropathy and forensic neurology; they literally wrote the book on their respective fields. And they demonstrate beyond any doubt that Thomas’ son died of a massive bacterial infection over several layers of his brain – and that he had suffered no blunt force trauma whatsoever. Thomas’ defense team also sought to call Professor Richard Ofshe, the world’s top expert on false confessions, who could attempt through hard social science to overcome jurors’ totally understandable inclination to assume that a confession must be true.
Ofshe was not allowed to testify.

“Scenes of a Crime” – the title obviously refers to the videotaped interview room and the jury room rather than to the loving home where Thomas and his wife raised six happy and healthy kids – hits you in the pit of the stomach, the same way “The Thin Blue Line” did 24 years ago. How, you wonder in both cases, could the judicial system miscarry so badly and so obviously? Babcock and Hadaegh show us how it happened, hour by grueling hour. Their film could use a clearer structural outline – it’s possible to convey Thomas’ increasing disorientation without making us feel it ourselves– but you’ll come out of it full of righteous indignation.

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