Thursday, August 8, 2013

Criminal Injustice Up Close

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

— Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The concept of a sane innocent person confessing to a crime doesn't compute. As people who behave rationally, we expect others to act in kind. And there's nothing rational in pretending to have committed a crime in order to feel the weight of the criminal justice system. So, when we hear about false confessions—an acknowledged criminal justice phenomenon—we can't help but feel a little skeptical. They just don't make sense.

(To read up on interrogation methods, see Tactics Police Use to Get a Confession.)

"Scenes of a Crime"

Making sense of false confessions is one of many reasons I encourage readers to watch "Scenes of a Crime." The compelling, revealing, and infuriating film documents the case of Adrian Thomas, a New York man accused and ultimately convicted of murdering his infant son. (New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has accepted the case. Argument hasn't been scheduled yet.)

The documentary has many lessons. So many, in fact, that I can't discuss them all here. (One that I must at least acknowledge in passing is juror incompetence—the beliefs and assumptions that often underlie verdicts are enough to leave you ill.)

Facts to Suit Theories

Fundamentally, "Scenes of a Crime" shows how false confessions are possible. Detectives interrogated Thomas, whose son was on the verge of death, for ten hours. In those ten hours they lied to him. Over and over again. In between lies they took him to a local hospital, not to see his son, but to receive psychiatric care.

Thomas repeatedly denied that he slammed his son on a bed, which was the police's theory of the "murder." But, he was suicidal and operating on an hour and a half's sleep. An interrogating detective told him that confessing to the crime could save his son's life by providing doctors with crucial medical information. The detectives also told him that either his wife or he would be held accountable for the death. So, he acquiesced to a version of events that supported the cops' theory.

Never mind that the theory was bunk. That theory came from an emotional and misguided doctor who treated Thomas's son. But it was all the cops needed—they were off to the races. They knew Thomas was guilty. They just needed proof. So they started interrogating. They didn't let the facts get in their way. Even after they learned that the child's skull had not been fractured, they continued to press on.

Eye Opener

Although the above is a bit of a plot spoiler, plot isn't why you should watch "Scenes of a Crime." You should watch it to learn about the psychology of false confessions and of law enforcement interrogation practices. You'll learn about the systemic flaws that allow a jury to convict in this kind of case. And you'll see the problem with working backward from a conclusion.

Update: On February 20, 2014, the New York Court of Appeals overturned Adrian Thomas's conviction. To read more, see New York Court: Some Police Lies Go Too Far.