Make popcorn. No, that’s not right. Get a sixpack. Closer, but still not right. I know, pull out your yellow pad and a pen, and take notes. The documentary, Scenes of a Crime, tells a story you need to hear.*
The movie centers around the creation of a case against Adrian Thomas, whose 4 month old baby was initially, and it would appear mistakenly, diagnosed as having a skull fracture caused by abuse that would inevitably lead to his death. Thomas was subject to ten hours of interrogation based upon this assumption, that his child would die from his crime, all caught on video. And that’s where this movie offers a level of insight that every criminal defense lawyer needs to see.
We know about the Reid Technique, the evil manipulation of suspects to get them to confess to crimes and make their prosecution a slam dunk. But have you ever really seen it in action? The movie intersperses Thomas’ interrogation with bits from a police training film on the Reid Technique and commentary from the Albany police sergeant who led his questioning and not only feels no remorse whatsoever about how he psychologically manipulated Thomas through lies and button-pressing into adopting his version of events, but believes he nailed the bad guy.
The film goes on with commentary by the unquestionably top expert in false confessions, Richard Ofshe, whose testimony was not allowed at trial, explaining how the manipulation produced a false confession, as well as the prosecution and defense lawyers who explain their views along the way.
This isn’t a movie to watch with the family. There are no costumed superheroes with magical powers, no car crashes and not a single funny moment. But it is monumentally insightful into how false confessions happen, and the failure of police, prosecution and judge in comprehending how a noncrime gets turned into a crime, and a noncriminal into a confessed killer.
Trying to avoid giving up all the good stuff in this documentary, I’ll only add that there is a bonus at the end providing yet another level of insight into why expert testimony is critically necessary despite the arrogant assumption that “anybody can tell” from watching the video of the interrogation whether it’s true or not.
The makers of the film, Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, have done a fantastic job of boiling down ten hours of interrogation into a reasonably watchable movie. A bit of repetition in there, but it’s for emphasis in case you missed the significance of what was being done to Thomas the first four times they showed it. Still, its utility as a training film, as well as a highly persuasive argument that Adrian Thomas’ “confession” was completely manipulated, is undisputed. The one loose thread, why the jury failed to give sufficient credit to the defense’s cause of death experts such that they found there was no crime at all, remains unanswered, but that’s about the worst thing that can be said about this movie.
Get this and watch it. Think of it as a CLE where you will actually learn something. Think of it as an hour and a half of your life that will eventually prove enormously useful in your practice. Think of it as doing one of the few things that will make you a far, far better lawyer. But get it, watch it and learn. This is an important movie, and every criminal defense lawyer should watch it.
* I was given access to a review copy to watch the movie. You may have to pay for it. It’s worth it.