'Scenes Of A Crime' Probes Police Interrogations

The award-winning documentary Scenes of a Crime covers the case of Adrian Thomas, who was convicted of killing his 4-month-old son. Thomas was interrogated for nearly 10 hours at a New York police station. He first claimed innocence but later confessed, then recanted. Host Michel Martin speaks with co-director Grover Babcock.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go behind closed doors. That's something we often do on Mondays where we talk about issues that we often don't talk about publicly. Today, we want to talk about something that most of us never see: police interrogations.

Now, we might think we do. There are so many police and crime shows on television - shows like "Law & Order," for example, that you may think you know what goes on during the questioning of a suspect, but we don't, because those shows wrap up the case in the space of an hour, whereas in real life interrogations can take hours, even days. And now some critics are starting to ask questions about whether interrogation techniques can actually affect the outcome of a case, especially a highly charged one.

This subject happens to be in the news right now because this week Adrian Thomas is scheduled to appeal his 2009 murder conviction in the death of his four-month-old son Matthew. The boy died at Albany Medical Center Hospital in New York from critical head trauma. In the days after his son was first hospitalized, Mr. Thomas steadfastly professed his innocence during a police interrogation. But after spending nearly 10 hours with officers without a lawyer, Mr. Thomas confessed to having to having thrown Matthew into his crib three times over the course of two weeks. He told police that he had been fighting with his wife and took out his frustration on the baby. Thomas was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

But was Adrian Thomas truly guilty or was he just worn down? That controversy is captured in the award-winning documentary "Scenes of a Crime." Co-director and co-producer Grover Babcock joins us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GROVER BABCOCK: Thank you.

MARTIN: What drew you to this case to begin with?

BABCOCK: My partner Blue Hadaegh and I are independent documentary producers and sometimes we work on commercial projects for other people, but sometimes we look for something on our own that we can work on over time. And we'd been looking at many different subjects and of course had heard about false confessions as a phenomenon and we were intrigued to kind of find a case that somehow illustrated the interrogation process that might lead to these types of things. So it was an intellectual journey at first and then through a lot of research we found a case that had a very complete video record of a long interrogation.

MARTIN: And I just want to clarify for people; we are not talking about the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that have become so much a part of our conversation around foreign policy. We're not talking about here techniques that many Americans consider torture. We're not talking about waterboarding, right?

BABCOCK: That's a great distinction. We're talking about things that actually pass the legal test of a legitimate police interrogation in police stations around the country every day, probably as people are listening to this right now.

MARTIN: But some people might be surprised to talk about or to learn the kinds of techniques that police are using when they question a suspect. I'm going to play a play a short clip now from the film where one of the officers describes those strategies. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SCENES OF A CRIME")

RONALD FOUNTAIN: When we're speaking to you, we're, of course, lying. We want you to tell us the truth so we're going to say anything we can to get you to tell us the truth. And that being we give you - I called them the outs. Could it have happened that you dropped the baby and the baby's head hit the back of the crib?

MARTIN: That was Detective Ronald Fountain. Was this something you found surprising?

BABCOCK: I was unprepared for the amount of lying and misrepresentation that police are allowed to do with a suspect and then to have any resulting response from the suspect be used in court eventually. There is no consistent standard about how much lying is appropriate in the interrogation room, how much pressure, how long these things can go. Those are things that I think are ripe for reconsideration.

MARTIN: And at one point one of Thomas' interrogators convinces him to throw a binder to the floor to mimic the way he allegedly threw his son, and there is that footage. I have to clarify for people here that the film includes an extensive amount of tape of the actual interrogation. So here is that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SCENES OF A CRIME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So here's the bed right here. So I'm thinking about that kid crying all day and all night in your ear, your mother-in-law nagging you and your wife calling you a loser, all right, and let that aggression build up and show me how you threw Matthew on your bed, all right? Don't try to sugarcoat it and make it like it wasn't that bad. Show me how hard you threw him on that bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

FOUNTAIN: That's how you did it?

ADRIAN THOMAS: (Unintelligible)

FOUNTAIN: All three times you did it just like that?

THOMAS: Yes.

MARTIN: Now, depending on your perspective, what this could be, you could see somebody who's already tired, disoriented, upset, being coaxed to do something. Or you could conclude that this is a person being led to describe what has actually occurred. Do you mind if I ask what conclusion you drew from this?

BABCOCK: I was unprepared to see how much is shown to a suspect and how much is promised to a suspect and then how much is depending on the suspect delivering that performance. What we did find is that the performance and some of the reenactments that the detectives were most interested in seeking didn't take into account medical evidence that really only emerged very long after the investigation was completed and Adrian Thomas was arrested. And I think that it just created in our minds an impression that interrogation as a process is not as much about investigation as it is about closing a case.

MARTIN: Do you draw the conclusion at the end of the day that Adrian Thomas has been wrongfully convicted? Do you think you know what happened?

BABCOCK: We spent so much time looking at, you know, whatever was introduced into court, talking with people after the court case, learning things, actually, that weren't even allowed into court. I know that Adrian Thomas was taken into that interrogation room based on a misdiagnosis of his child. The doctor came into court and said yes, I made a mistake. There was no skull fracture. By the account of the detectives involved, he is the one who told them that this is a murder investigation and they need to find the suspect. This entire case proceeded from that moment. So when I see Adrian Thomas, and I visited him recently, I see a person in front of me who looks just like any other person who cannot believe that they're in a prison for such a long time based on what was essentially a mistaken investigation.

MARTIN: We're talking about the documentary "Scenes of a Crime" with filmmaker Grover Babcock. It's a documentary about the murder case of Adrian Thomas. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his son Matthew in 2009 after nearly 10 hours of a police interrogation. And you point out that Thomas almost immediately disavowed the confession. You had the opportunity to record a statement from him in prison and this is what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SCENES OF A CRIME")

THOMAS: When you've been bombarded hours with questions back to back, you know it's not the truth, I know it's not the truth, so I'm going to repeat what you're saying back to you. Later on I was thinking about, okay, well, boy, I just sat here and lie, saying I did something to my son when I didn't do nothing. It's a traumatic experience. Why lie to do your job? That would be the question. No, I didn't kill my son. But yes, I don't know what happened to my son when I was telling - sitting down with the police that night in the police station.

MARTIN: Reasonable people might listen to this and say, well, I can understand that if that's a juvenile. For example, there's the famous case of the five young men who are convicted in the case of the Central Park jogger, who was this woman who was brutally attacked in Central Park. They confessed. They didn't have their parents with them. They didn't have attorneys with them. And you know, years after the fact, after many of them had served their entire sentences, it emerged real person who had committed the crime who was already in jail for something else then came forward and it emerged that he was in fact responsible. And they confessed. But they're juveniles.

So some people might say to that, well, how is it possible that a grown man would agree or confess to doing something he did not do, especially to his own child who he presumably loved?

BABCOCK: Well, I think that the best way to look at it is to step back from this view we might have of ourselves as willful creatures making decisions that are, you know, responsible and educated and I would never do this or that, and to actually look at the evidence that's out there. The Innocence Project has exonerated many people now, several hundred, based on DNA evidence that was never examined at the time. About a quarter of those people gave a false confession. So rather than me giving some abstruse theory about, you know, human psychology, I can simply point to the fact that it does happen, and then we took that as a pretext for finding out what are the mechanics of that. And I think it has a lot to do with taking a person to the point where they think they're in some kind of bond with the investigator and that life might be a lot better and a lot easier after a certain period of time if they comply with what's being suggested.

And I think that Adrian Thomas, he heard certain threats against his own freedom, his wife's freedom. He had seen the officers who were speaking with him take away his remaining children, the ones that weren't hospitalized, take them into custody in front of him. He had no doubt that they had a certain level of authority and I think that he was looking for ways to make life easier in the immediate future.

MARTIN: When you cite this figure that of the cases that have been handled by the Innocence Project of people who have been exonerated, it seems to me that 25 percent is a rather large number of people who confessed to crimes that they did not do. What sort of response did you get?

BABCOCK: A lot of the people who come to the screenings are involved with law. Or in one case I know, we had a police officer, a former detective, come to a screening who was just very satisfied, because he'd had a case earlier in his career where he'd elicited a false confession from someone, quite honestly not realizing he was doing it. And only after the investigation had reached a different phase, he realized the confession this person gave him was false. He was very happy to see the film.

I don't feel that I've detected any change of heart of anyone involved with the case. I think that as a human behavior we've become very invested in our decisions and in many cases very reluctant to look backwards and realize that there were, you know, mistakes we might have made.

MARTIN: We talked about the distorting effect that all these law enforcement and crime shows may have on people's understanding of the way things really work. One thing that they do tend to show is people being read their Miranda rights. We can all recite it, can't we: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of the law. You have the right to request counsel. Mr. Thomas didn't do that in this case. Do we know why not?

BABCOCK: I don't think it's as uncommon as it might seem. I think that when people find themselves under suspicion, a lot of times they feel like if they'll just be listened to because perhaps the truth is on their side, they can clear things up in a hurry. I don't know what everyone else's experience is, but just in working in my business, every time I have to hire an attorney, I realize two, three, four hundred dollars are going to fly out of my pocket very quickly and I think your regular average person might think that if they can just clear this up quickly, why not give it a shot?

MARTIN: Well, what would you like the rest of us to draw from this film?

BABCOCK: I hope the film can become part of a broader awareness and a broader consciousness about what actually may be happening in interrogation rooms around the country. Very often when we hear on the local news that a suspect was picked up, he confessed, the case is closed, in our minds things change very quickly, you know, that person becomes guilty. I hope the film can stand as some kind of touchstone for people to wonder what is it that happens in each of these cases and keep an open mind, particularly if they find themselves in the jury room.

MARTIN: Grover Babcock is the co-director and co-producer of the award-winning documentary "Scenes of a Crime." The film can be seen in various film festivals around the country and screenings. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Grover Babcock, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BABCOCK: Thank you.

MARTIN: We just wanted to let you know that we've reached out to the city of Troy Police Department to ask if they wanted to offer any comments in response to the film and they declined. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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