Man Freed After Confessing To Killing Son During Interrogation

After years in prison, Adrian Thomas was found not guilty for the murder of his infant son. His story was told in Scenes of a Crime. In this encore broadcast, the film's co-director explains the case.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we'd like to bring you up-to-date on a story that we've covered. It's one of those parents'-worst-nightmare stories that people hear about and hope will never touch someone they know. In 2009, a man named Adrian Thomas was convicted in a second-degree murder of his infant son, and a key part of the prosecution was Thompson's own confession. After his son died, Thomas was reportedly questioned by police officers for nearly 10 hours with no lawyer present. That confession was ultimately thrown out by the New York State Court of Appeals, which found the interrogation, quote, "coercive" and, quote, "involuntary." His story was detailed in the award-winning documentary "Scenes Of A Crime." I spoke with co-director and co-producer Grover Babcock back in 2011 about the case, and I asked him if there's anything in his reporting that surprised him when he learned about police interrogation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROVER 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 to 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's interrogators convinces him to throw a binder to the floor, to mimic the way he allegedly threw his son. And there's 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 ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Now, here's the bed right here. Start thinking about them kids 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 buildup 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.

(THUMPING NOISE)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: That's how you did it?

ADRIAN THOMAS: No, no, that was not my intention.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: 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 coached 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: 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 ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS: When you been bombarded hours with questions back-to-back, you know it's not the truth, I know it's the truth, so I'm going to repeat what you saying back to you. Later on I was thinking about, OK, well, boy, I just sat here and lied, saying that 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. Some people might say that, well, how is it possible that a grown man would agree or confesses to something he did not do, especially to his own child, whom he presumably loved?

BABCOCK: Well, I think that the best way to look at it is to step back from this view that we might have to 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 100, 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 from 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 about 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 exonerated, seems to me that 25 percent is a rather large number of people who confess to crimes that they didn't do. What's the response that 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 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 become very invested in our decisions and in many cases very reluctant to look 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 peoples 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 right - can’t we? - you have the right to remain silent. Everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to request council. Mr. Thomas didn't do that in this case, and 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 hundred dollars are going to fly out of my pocket very quickly and I think your regular average person might think that if they could just clear this up quickly, why not give it a shot?

MARTIN: That was Grover Babcock he spoke to us in 2011 about his award-winning documentary about the Adrian Thomas case called "Scenes Of A Crime." But all that attention, including the court's finding about the forced and false confession did not lead to Thomas' release. Instead he was retried on the charges. Last week a jury found him not guilty. He was then released from prison after nearly six years. Adrian Thomas has moved back to be with family in Georgia, he says his time outside of prison is, quote, "unreal," and he says he's ready to move forward with his life.

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