Movie review: ‘Scenes of a Crime’

Los Angeles Times Film Critic

If you watch “Scenes of a Crime” — and you very much should — be prepared to be outraged. A cool documentary that makes the blood boil, it examines how people can be psychologically manipulated into confessing. Not only to crimes they may not have committed but, even worse, to crimes that may never have happened.

Hard to sit through but even harder to turn away from, “Scenes” won the grand jury award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The movie manages, through intense focus on one particular case, to make points that resonate throughout our entire criminal justice system.

Though it’s an article of faith with many people that an innocent person will never admit to a crime, this film, co-directed by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, not only calls that truism into question but, through access to a remarkable video document, actually shows us how it happens.

That video is a complete record of a 10-hour interrogation, spread out over two days in September 2008, in Troy, N.Y. Police officers were convinced — for what turned out to be questionable reasons — that a man named Adrian Thomas had killed his 4-month-old son, and they systematically set out to get him to confess. It is not a pretty picture.

Key excerpts from the video are the heart of “Scenes,” but they’re supplemented by extensive interviews with significant figures in the case. These include the police officers who did the interrogation, the district attorney’s office lawyers who prosecuted the case, the public defenders who stood up for the other side, jurors who handed down the verdict, and a variety of expert witnesses.

Perhaps the most persuasive speaker is a man whose testimony was not allowed at the trial. That would be social psychologist Richard Ofshe, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and an expert at the ways police psychologically influence confessions. To hear him calmly and persuasively walk us through the ways that intimidation works and then to see it unfold in front of us is eye-opening.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this case is the way it began. When police went to the hospital to look into the death of Thomas’ son, they were met by Dr. Walter Edge, who not only told them that the infant had died of a fractured skull but added, in no uncertain terms, “somebody murdered this child.”

Roused to action by this declaration, detectives looked around for likely suspects, saw one in the infant’s very large father, and turned the situation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Armed with the zeal of the righteous, they believed nothing would do unless Thomas could be made to confess in exactly the way they thought he should. Which is what eventually happened.

Upon further examination of the infant, though, it turned out that neither the fractured skull nor undisputed evidence of the high-impact injury that Edge had insisted existed was present. (Edge declined to participate in the film.)

In addition, expert witnesses retained by the public defender’s office felt that the evidence was quite strong that a serious infection had led to the death of the child, not any kind of physical injury.

But the Troy legal establishment insisted that Thomas’ confession trumped everything and brought in its own medical witnesses to bolster that story.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of “Scenes of a Crime” is witnessing the interrogating police officers almost boasting about how they intentionally misled and baldly lied to Adrian Thomas — a procedure that is apparently legal — to manipulate him to confess to the crime they had convinced themselves he had committed.

That kind of playing god may be, as a police training video we see indicates, standard procedure in many police departments. But when such arrogance ends up costing a man his freedom, it is difficult to be unmoved.