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?

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4 Responses

  1. Tammy says:

    I have no opinion on this case, since this post is the first I’ve heard about it. But I wanted to comment to offer a word of caution: I know from firsthand experience (former foster parent, former sexual assault and child abuse prevention advocate, and having worked as a paralegal in the child welfare system) that “previous Child Protective Services visits to Thomas’s home” are really not probative of anything.

    Anyone can call Child Protective Services and report just about anybody for just about anything — I’ve seen firsthand cases of people making referrals because they didn’t like a parent’s choice of summer camps, because they didn’t like the fact that a parent was in a same-gender relationship, because they didn’t like the parent’s religious choices. I’ve seen children make CPS reports against their parents for grounding them, or making them eat their broccoli, or sending them to bed early. I’ve seen divorcing spouses, or their families, make report after report after report. One social worker in my county estimated that something less than 5% of the reports they made were actually found to be based on real child abuse and neglect.

    The trouble, of course, is that Child Protective Services has to investigate every single one of those referrals, no matter how ridiculous they may seem. I’ve seen reports made about things that, even if true, would not constitute child abuse or neglect in my state. That doesn’t stop the authorities from having to investigate it. But, a string of unfounded referrals (in my state, those determined “to be false, to be
    inherently improbable, to involve an accidental injury, or not to
    constitute child abuse or neglect”) doesn’t necessarily mean the parent is actually abusing his kids and just hasn’t gotten caught yet.

  2. Brian Frye says:

    Tammy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Of course, you are correct. My knowledge of this particular case is quite limited as well, but the article I linked to above suggests that there may have been previous child abuse/neglect issues. In any case, my concern is that the filmmakers chose to exclude inconvenient but relevant facts. Is that consistent with documentary ethics?

  3. Peter says:

    I also saw the film at Full Frame – including the Q&A with both filmmakers. I thought it was very powerful on the subject of interrogations, and I don’t think you represented the film accurately.

    I see a lot of documentaries. You made the film sound one-sided, but this is not like a Michael Moore doc. I remember the first 20-30 minutes is just the police side of the case. The rest of the film covers other characters and other evidence in a very serious and direct way.

    The defense medical experts uncovered a document showing the child was extremely infected – and showed how the baby’s doctor and medical examiner didn’t pay much attention to it. And that the baby was misdiagnosed with a skull fracture – a point the police accepted. The filmmakers put a statement in the movie saying they tried to interview these two doctors, but they wouldn’t participate – is that ridicule?

    You made a point that Adrian Thomas’s wife testified against him, but when I looked in the paper you linked to – the “Troy Record” – it looks like she didn’t say anything about Adrian Thomas abusing his child. Nothing. (“Dad on trial for infant’s death” 10/3/09) She basically just said she woke up and found her kid in distress. That’s not exactly “testifying against” Adrian Thomas, is it?

    In fact I remember in the movie they showed a police document from Thomas’s wife saying she never saw him harm the baby. You didn’t mention this.

    I don’t have a lot of information about the Child Protective Services issue – it doesn’t sound like you do either. But every parent lives in fear that they’ll be accused of abusing their child after a random childhood accident.

    False confessions happen – of course you know this. The bigger point of the film is how they can happen. I think the film makes clear that legal techniques used by the police can open the door to false confession.

    The filmmakers talked about how it was very hard to cover a 10 hour interrogation in 90 minutes – obviously some things get left out. Criminal cases are messy. I’m guessing there were some things left out of “Thin Blue Line” and “Paradise Lost” too.

    I walked away from this film learning that the baby didn’t have a skull fracture, the hospital’s own record showed the baby had a horrible infection, and that the police clearly manipulated Adrian Thomas over and over an over (telling him if you didn’t do it your wife did).

    I felt bad the jury didn’t get to hear the confession expert at the trial – who knows if either of us would have been able to make a good verdict in this case without him?

  4. Brian Frye says:

    Peter, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    You are absolutely right that Scenes of a Crime is not a Michael Moore film. I think that makes the issues it presents all the more interesting and difficult to resolve. The film argues that interrogation techniques can produce false confessions, which is clearly true. But the film also argues that Mr. Thomas is innocent. The fact that interrogation can produce false confessions does not necessarily mean that Mr. Thomas falsely confessed. Did the police manipulate Mr. Thomas, or convince him to tell the truth?

    As I mentioned, I know very little about the facts of this case. Like you, I watched the film and assumed that the filmmakers told the truth, to the best of their ability. What should I think when googling the case turns up seemingly important facts they omitted? Should I trust their account of the medical testimony? Should I be surprised that the prosecution’s witnesses refused to comment?

    It’s interesting that you mention Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line & Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost. Would Morris have approached this case differently than he approached Randall Adams’s? Can you make an effective film about the risk of false confessions without arguing that your subject is innocent? As for Berlinger, the controversy surrounding his film Crude presents ethical questions even more serious than the ones I raise here.