Scenes of a Crime

This entry is part 27 of 30 in the series Raindance 2011

Released: 2011
Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock

Thought-provoking and disturbing documentary

In the past few weeks the Troy Davis case has brought the issue of miscarriages of justice in the American legal system to the front of public consciousness.  People are appalled that the execution of a man could take place when his guilt is far from clear.  The UK premiere of Scenes of a Crime at the 19th Raindance Film Festival was perfectly timed to fit in with the audience’s desire to know more about holes in the justice system.

Using interviews with police officers, defence and prosecution lawyers, medical experts, jurors and legal experts in conjunction with video footage of an interrogation this documentary examines the case of a man interviewed by police and then prosecuted following the death of his four month old son.

From the beginning of the film the viewer is unaware of the outcome of the case.  Scenes of a Crime is predominately concerned with the phenomenon of false confessions and the interrogation techniques common in police procedures.  Clips are shown of a training video which advises officers to employ all sorts of morally dubious tactics including lying to a suspect in order to obtain the desired confession.  The interrogation carried out on Adrian Thomas conforms to the advice given in the video, right down to the positioning of the table and chairs.

A baby is taken to hospital in the night and a doctor informs the police that though still alive the baby has been murdered.  His skull has been fractured and there is no hope of survival with the only possible cause of the injury being an adult slamming the head into a hard surface.  In order to protect the six other children in the household they are taken into care and the father interviewed by police.

Over the next ten hours he is told that by telling the police exactly what happened the baby can be saved, he’s assured that everyone understands that accidents happen and finally warned that if he does not confess his wife will be blamed for the child’s death.  The father offers a confession and accepts the police version of events.

Further medical investigation indicates that there is no fractured skull, no signs of abuse and evidence of an infection in the little boy’s brain.  Despite this the police go no further – they have a signed confession.  The District Attorney’s office is happy to pursue the case.  The Public Defender attempts to offer the testimony of false confession and medical experts but this carries little weight against the evidence of a tape-recorded confession.

Although the tone of the film is supportive of Thomas’ innocence and the theory that his confession is a false one, it doesn’t portray the police or prosecutors as corrupt or bad – Instead the system is seen to be at fault.  I actually found the police officers to be quite sympathetic.  They had been told unequivocally by a doctor that an adult has killed a four month old baby, of course they are going to be robust in their search for an answer.  They are not vicious, they are not violent, they follow their training and adhere to procedures used across the country, can we really blame them?  Similarly the prosecution lawyers appear to be decent people doing a difficult job but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that this isn’t a believable confession and that no-one should be convicted on such flimsy evidence.

The question for the the jurors to struggle with is why would an innocent man admit to killing his own baby?  They are faced with conflicting medical testimony and a taped confession.  What would you do in such circumstances?

The film tells us that the second biggest cause of miscarriages of justice in the US is false confessions – this is clearly an issue which needs to be looked at as soon as possible and new interrogation techniques introduced.  The story of Adrian Thomas is one of only hundreds (if not thousands) of cases of false confession, a sobering thought.

Scenes of A Crime is a timely and concerning examination of a justice system that increasingly looks to the wider world to be in complete disarray.

Previous and next posts in this series:<< War GamesThe Fifth Commandment (El Quinto Mandamiento) >>
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