Scenes of a crime is a compelling documentary about the case of Adrian Thomas, who was convicted of killing his four month old son by child abuse. I recommend it for anyone who tries criminal cases, as a detailed case study of a coerced confession. The documentary includes commentary by Richard Ofshe, a leading expert in coerced confessions whose testimony was not admitted at the trial. By showing scenes from the actual interrogation video coupled with scenes from training videos for the Reid technique, and explanation by Ofshe, it is easy to see how and why a person would confess to something they did not do, even something as terrible as causing of the death of their own four month old child.
One tragedy in this case was the refusal of the court to admit the expert testimony under these conditions – the interrogation is an extreme example of a psychologically coerced statement, using a system that has been developed over many decades and which is clearly outside of the understanding of the average person who has never seen it in action.
Over a period of ten hours of interrogation, the detectives, operating on the mistaken assumption that the child suffered from a skull fracture, convinced Thomas that he was repressing memories of hurting his child, told him over and over again that he had slammed his child’s head down, minimized the act and gave Thomas justifications for the act, told him repeatedly they understood it was an accident and that they would not arrest him if he only admitted to it and that they would let him leave if he admitted to it. They lied and told Thomas that Thomas’ wife had told them Thomas did it, that the doctors said that was how it happened, and they told Thomas that it would save his child’s life if he admitted how it happened, because it would change the course of the doctors’ treatment of the child.
The detectives also employed the power of psychodrama in their interrogation, although they probably did not clearly understand what they were doing and the effect it would have – what we could call the dark side of psychodramatic techniques. The detective showed Thomas what he believed happened, demonstrated how he believed Thomas had thrown the baby down, made Thomas repeat what the detective had done, and made him repeat it again with more force and emotion. The detective created emotion by telling Thomas how to feel during the re-enactment, and made it seem credible and believable.
My review – watch the documentary, it is well worth it.
My opinion – the conviction should be reversed based on the court’s refusal to admit Ofshe’s testimony under these circumstances, but that alone is not going to guarantee an acquittal on re-trial. Would Ofshe’s testimony have made a difference to the jury in this case? Almost certainly. It appears that the jury based their decision on the confession above all else. It is counter-intuitive that a person would confess to something they did not do, and expert testimony is crucial to helping a jury understand what happened and why.
I think there is more to the jury’s guilty verdict than simply the absence of Ofshe’s testimony, though. From watching the interrogation video clips, the filmmakers’ interview with Thomas, and the courtroom scenes, I don’t like Thomas. When he speaks, he doesn’t seem credible. In the courtroom, he looked mean and he looked angry. He looked like someone who could throw down a child if he were angry. I am going to guess that the only time the jurors came close to “seeing” what happened was when they watched the interrogation video, and that image is what stayed in their minds. What could the defense have done to counter that image, and to give the jurors a positive image to carry with them into the jury room? If the jurors are going to acquit him, they have to not only understand how a coerced confession is possible, they have to understand Thomas. They need to know him and like him, and want to help him. “Reasonable doubt” is never enough.
The defense lawyer says that the jury had “wooden heads and stone hearts” – I disagree. They are human, they have thinking minds and warm hearts. What would have made their hearts open to Adrian Thomas?