Friday, October 11, 2013

"Scenes of a Crime": A Documentary Surrounding the Adrian Thomas Case and a Look at False Confession Experts

Scenes of a Crime is a fascinating documentary examining the case and confession of Adrian Thomas.  On September 21, 2008, one of Adrian Thomas’s four-month-old twin sons, Matthew, was taken to the hospital for difficulty breathing.  The admitting doctor identified signs of Sepsis (caused by infection) and started to treat Matthew with antibiotics and ordered testing.  Matthew was transferred to another hospital where Dr. Walter Edge, who was working in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, was concerned with fluid around Matthew’s brain.  Dr. Edge suspected the fluid was the result of intentional abuse and notified the police; Child Protective Services removed Thomas’s six other children from the home.  Later at the hospital, Dr. Edge told the detectives “somebody murdered this child, this child [is] going to die.”   

At this point, the officers figured it was either the mother or Thomas who had injured Matthew.  When the interrogation began, Thomas was told that he was free to leave, and was not under arrest, but he was read his Miranda rights.  The interrogation was recorded without Thomas’s knowledge.  The first part of the interrogation lasted two hours.  The detectives stopped when Thomas said he might kill himself if his son did not survive.  Thomas was then transferred to a hospital and kept there for sixteen hours for observation. 

While Thomas was being evaluated, he was not allowed to contact anyone, nor was he updated on his son’s condition.  Dr. Edge spoke with the detectives again, telling them that no skull fractures were found and Matthew did not have any broken bones.  Dr. Edge continued to maintain that the injury was the result of non-accidental blunt force trauma. 

Thomas may have been able to sleep for an hour and a half.  Upon his release, detectives took Thomas back to the interrogation room where he was again told he was not under arrest and read his Miranda rights.  This interrogation lasted over seven hours. 

During the interrogation the detectives constantly lied to Thomas.  They told him that the medical evidence was conclusive that the injury was the result of an adult slamming Matthew’s head hard against a solid surface, and that Thomas could save his child’s life by admitting to what he had done.  The detectives told Thomas that it must have been an accident and he would not be arrested if it were an accident and that it was either him or his wife who hurt their son; Thomas responded by saying his wife was a good person and if it came down to that, he would take the fall for her.  Throughout the interrogation, Thomas constantly denied intentionally hurting his son but slowly started to break-down and parrot what the detectives had been saying to him: that maybe it was an accident or he bumped Matthew’s head as he was putting him into the crib. 

Later in the interrogation, the detectives demonstrated with a notebook how Thomas must have thrown his son down and then asked Thomas to demonstrate with the notebook how he threw Matthew down.  The detective insisted that Thomas do it multiple times, adding more force each time.   Thomas eventually signed a confession, which he quickly recanted. 

The jury saw most of his ten-hour interrogation.  At trial, experts for the defense testified that they reviewed the autopsy reports and test results and found persuasive evidence indicating that Matthew died as the result of an infection.  Defense experts believed that Dr. Edge and the Medical Examiner, Dr. Michael Sicirica, disregarded the indications of infection.  Thomas was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-five years to life.

Thomas has an appeal pending before the highest court in New York: the Court of Appeals, sometime in the fall of 2013.  The issues to be examined include whether the confession was involuntary due to coercive police tactics, whether the trial judge rightly barred the admission of testimony by Richard Ofshe, a renowned interrogation and false confession expert, and whether there was sufficient evidence to convict based on the convincing defense expert testimony that the child’s death was caused by infection and not trauma.

Scenes of a Crime was interesting to watch because it examines and shows parts of the actual interrogation.  The case and interrogation are explained through interviews of people involved in the case (including the defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, two of the interrogating officers, defense medical experts, a false confession expert, two jurors, and Thomas himself).  The viewer is presented with all the different sides to the case.  The police admit to lying to Thomas to try to get him to confess and say they will lie as much as necessary to get the suspect to confess.  Throughout the documentary, there are also clips from a training video for the Reid technique, a widely use interrogation method that instructs police to lie and use minimization techniques to induce confessions.  Dr. Ofshe, discusses how the Reid technique and tactics the police practiced in Thomas’s interrogation could lead to false confessions and in this case, likely did. 

Another very interesting aspect of the documentary were the interviews with two of the jurors.  One of the jurors said she did not like the officers’ use of deceit but believed the confession to be truthful.  Another juror saw no error with the officers’ tactics and thought Thomas was genuine in the video but cold and arrogant on the stand.  This juror also said that she would have been insulted if Dr. Ofshe was allowed to testify because she could tell when a person was lying.

The latter juror’s statement is the very reason why false confession experts are necessary in cases of recanted confessions that are likely false and the result of coercive police tactics.  Dr. Ofshe would not have testified that Thomas gave a false confession; he would have offered his expert opinion that false confessions can occur and have been found to occur under certain circumstances.  Most people do not think someone would falsely confess to a crime, but they can be induced to falsely confess due to psychological coercive interrogation techniques, and it is for this reason that expert testimony is necessary. 

New York uses the Frye standard when evaluating the admissibility of expert testimony at trial.   The standard is commonly known as the “general acceptance test”: “the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.”  At the Thomas trial, the judge barred Dr. Ofshe from testifying because it was not beyond the knowledge of the jury and according to the judge, false confession testimony had not gained “general acceptance” yet.  However, there are many academic articles and resources that have tested the possibility of false confessions and studied how they occur. 

Confessions, especially taped confessions, are extremely persuasive to juries.  Scenes of a Crime shows how compelling the confession was to the jurors even in light of extremely convincing scientific evidence supporting the conclusion that Matthew died because of an infection.

This documentary would be useful for practitioners to view, especially if they have cases involving recanted confessions or alleged false confessions.  In the interest of justice, police and prosecutors should be wary of potentially coercive interrogation tactics and, as Dr. Ofshe explains in the documentary, the best confessions are ones that give details that could be corroborated and give details that were either not known by the police or the public.  If the facts between an alleged confession and what actually happened do not match up, police and prosecutors must fight against tunnel vision and seek the truth elsewhere. 

Defense attorneys may have difficulty getting false confession experts admitted by judges, regardless of what admissibility standard the state uses.  They should zealously argue that expert testimony is essential to explaining to the jury under what circumstances false confessions can occur because of the incredible weight confessions carry with a jury.  Scenes of a Crime ends with a statement by Thomas from prison and leaves the viewer wondering which scene of a crime the title refers to, the one Thomas was convicted of, or what went on in the interrogation room, which may have lead to a grave miscarriage of justice.

Scenes of a Crime is available at many law school libraries, including American University Washington College of Law, for more viewer information, click here.

You can read more about false confessions from another one of our blog posts: Guilty But Innocent.

Raleigh Mark
Blog Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner 

Image from Scenes of a Crime


  1. Let's see, false confession testimony hasn't been generally accepted? This is surprising, especially in New York where the Martin Tankleff case In the past several years classically demonstrated the tactics of detectives who, almost immediately, arrested Tankleff, then 17, for savagely murdering his parents. See After 17 years of wrongful imprisonment, the Governor chose to drop the case. Two other recent cases draw additional attention to the irrational exuberance of the police: Amanda Knox and the West Memphis 3. The 'confessors' in the three cases were a 17-year old, a 16-year old with an IQ of 72 and a young woman arrested in a foreign country. All three were subjected to many hours of interrogation and "tricked.' Incidentally, Jerry Ofshe testified on a limited basis in the WM3 case. False confessions, like disease, seem to have common symptoms and allowing experts to testify to such occurrences ought to be allowed. This documentary film is a much welcome addition to the public's need to understand that a confession, no matter how serious the effect of its utterance, can nevertheless be made for a variety of bad reasons. The only thing that a potential defendant can do is say "I want a lawyer."

  2. Criminal law, on the other hand, encompasses issues such as robbery, assault, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A DUI lawyer falls under the category of legal professionals who work under criminal law.

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  4. This case is a classic example of false confessions. Great post.
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