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FDL Movie Night: Scenes of a Crime

After watching Scenes of a Crime, the acclaimed documentary from Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh about police interrogation techniques eliciting a false confession, I was struck by how simple and obvious the methods are, yet how utterly effective. If you’ve ever watched more than an episode of the original Law & Order, the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation should be familiar to you–and no doubt, we think securely, if ever falsely accused of a crime, we’d never fall for them.

Don’t be so sure, says Richard Ofshe, a U.S. expert witness on false confessions, who appears in Scenes of a Crime.

As Scenes of a Crime shows, the Reid Technique and its nine steps are so effective at producing false confessions–the second highest cause for wrongful convictions of innocent people–that even an innocent man, accused of killing one of his children, will confess to the crime. And on the basis of that coerced confession, despite expert evidence to the contrary, a jury will convict him.

In 2008, Adrian Thomas, a former high school football player, a huge man, unemployed with seven children, was brought into the Troy, New York police department for questioning after one of his 4 month-old twin boys was rushed, first, to the local hospital, and then to the Albany Medical Center. There police cornered the rushed, overworked ER doctor about the baby’s condition, and the doctor (who declined to be interviewed for Scenes of a Crime) claimed it was murder.

The police didn’t arrest Thomas. Instead they questioned him–he had waived the right to have an attorney present–for ten hours. During that time the detectives lied to him, manipulating him, coercing him.  After ten hours of interrogation (plus a 16-hour  stay in a mental ward) without a lawyer present, a detective tells Thomas:

I’m not going to arrest you…I don’t want to arrest you

and that if Thomas, a giant of a man, just shows them how he threw his baby on the bed, he can then go see his wife and dying son in the hospital. Thomas demonstrates how he slammed his four-month old down on the bed three times, after watching demonstrations by the detective. By this time, Thomas’ son is already dead. Based on his confession, written up by the police, the Rensselaer County District Attorney is fired up to prosecute.

During his videotaped interrogation–which was admitted as evidence–when the police say that only one of the two adults in the house could have caused the baby’s injuries, Thomas states that he’s only admitting to the crime to protect his wife from being a suspect and going to jail. But there were no acute injuries, as an autopsy and an expert witnesses later prove.

Rather, Pneumococcal Sepsis was the cause of the baby’s death, not the (non-existent) skull fracture and the (non-existent) subdural hemorrhage that the ER doctor thought he saw. But the police are convinced Thomas shook his child or slammed the baby against something hard. One of the reasons? Thomas never calls his child by name throughout the interrogation,  instead referring to the baby as

my son.

The police want a confession. The DA wants a conviction. The judge was on the election ballot, and at least one of the jurors, who admits to filmmakers Babcock and Hadaegh that there’s

always just a little bit of doubt

and that she is not 100% convinced of Thomas’ guilt, she just wants to go play golf after about a month of trial.

On Law & Order, once the autopsy results came in–with no signs of any fractures, past or present, no subdural hemorrhage, no bruising, but plenty of evidence of the fatal infection–the DA would have dismissed the case against Thomas. But this is real life, and now Thomas is serving 25 years to life.

Thanks to his court appointed attorney and continued efforts by his supporters, Thomas’s case will be heard by the New York Court of Appeals this year. Hopefully he’ll be released. Scenes of a Crime clearly shows, without advocating, the flaws in our criminal justice system, especially with regards to the use of the Reid Technique. John E. Reid and Associates, which holds the copyright on the interrogation method and teaches it in seminars, maintains that

It’s not the technique that causes false or coerced confessions but police detectives who apply improper interrogation procedures.

But whether it’s the method or its application, Adrian Thomas has been behind bars since 2008.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.