Scenes of a Crime & the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
On April 16 & 17, Penny & I attended the second half of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. We saw several new films that addressed legal issues, which I plan to write about here.
The festival presented its grand jury award to Scenes of a Crime by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, which argues that Adrian Thomas of Troy, New York was convicted of murdering his infant son on the basis of a false confession. In September 2008, Thomas’s four-month-old Matthew Thomas died from brain trauma. Over the following two days, Troy police interrogated Thomas for about 10 hours. At first, Thomas insisted that he did not hurt his son, but eventually, he confessed to slamming his son onto the bed.
The filmmakers argue that the police coerced a false confession from Thomas, using “an array of powerful psychological techniques.” And they present a powerful case that interrogation techniques create a substantial risk of false confessions, a serious problem that the general public is only beginning to understand. They show a substantial part of the videotaped interrogation and use clips from a training video, as well as interviews with the police and the defense’s expert on false confessions, to explain how the police convinced Thomas to confess. The filmmakers argue that Thomas’s son actually died of a staph infection, not brain trauma, an argument supported by the defense’s medical experts.
However, the filmmakers minimize or omit certain relevant evidence. For example, they mention the prosecution’s medical experts, who testified that Thomas’s son died of brain trauma, only to ridicule their credentials and imply that they are liars or hacks. Moreover, they fail to mention previous Child Protective Services visits to Thomas’s home or, most egregiously, the fact that his wife testified against him.
In addition, the filmmakers deliberately ridicule or attack anyone who does not support Thomas. They present the prosecutors as cartoonishly naive, the police officers as duplicitous and vindictive (albeit largely unsuccessfully), the judge as focused on re-election, and the jurors as self-satisfied twits. I found the presentation of the jurors particularly uncomfortable.
In any case, I think the film presents many interesting questions, some of which the filmmakers may not have anticipated. Lawyers owe duties to their client and duties to the court. Ideally, lawyers carefully monitor those duties, especially when they may conflict. Indeed, conflicting duties may force lawyers to withdraw. What duties do documentary filmmakers owe to their subjects and to their audiences? Are those duties honored, or honored in the breach?