Scenes of a Crime
Adam Mason, Ronald Fountain, Jerome Frost, Ingrid Effman, Christa Brooks, Richard Ofshe, Adrian Thomas
(New Box Productions)
Silverdocs Documentary Festival: 25 Jun 2011
You’re a human being and you’ve got rights.
—Detective Adam Mason
When Adrian Thomas was interviewed by police in September 2008, he didn’t know they were being videotaped. The Troy, New York detectives say their chief asked them to use the room with the camera. “I had never used it before,” says Ronald Fountain, but “after a few minutes, we just forgot about the camera.”
The interrogation went on for over 10 hours, notes a title card at the start of Scenes of a Crime. A year later, when Thomas was tried for the murder of his four-month-old son Matthew, portions of the tape were introduced as evidence. The scenes jurors saw include one in which Thomas throws a notebook onto the floor, hard, demonstrating for Adam Mason how he threw his baby, not once, but on three occasions in the days before Matthew went to the hospital.
This scene serves as a kind of climax for the interrogation, and Scenes of a Crime shows it more than once. It’s always upsetting. Thomas is distraught, looking over at the detective for direction, who provides it: “So hold that like you hold that baby, okay? And start thinking about them negative things that your wife said to you, all right?” Mason stands in the lower right corner of the scene, Thomas to the left. An added soundtrack includes a pulse, something like a speedy heartbeat. “Let that aggression build up, and show me how you threw Matthew on your bed, all right? Don’t try to sugarcoat it make it like it wasn’t that bad. Show me how hard you threw him on that bed.” As the notebook whomps the floor, a cymbal sound emphasizes how hard it hits. Thomas looks to Mason, who shrugs, nods, and holds out his hands as he asks for confirmation: “That’s how you did it?” Yeah, says Thomas, plainly exhausted. “But it was never intentional.”
The scene shows a crime, according to Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh’s exceptional, frequently alarming documentary. But Thomas didn’t commit it. The cops did, in coercing his confession, and the prosecutors did, in ignoring medical evidence concerning the cause of death. The film, screening at Silverdocs on 25 June, makes its case with scenes from the interrogation video, as well as interviews with the detectives, prosecutors, defense attorneys, doctors, and also Richard Ofshe, an expert in false confessions.
“You have the right to remain silent,” Thomas hears as the interview begins. As Fountain and Mason reconstruct their thinking at the time, they begin with a story that later turns out to be wrong: a Dr. Wally Edge at Albany Medical Center tells them the baby has a skull fracture, that he was a victim of abuse. The cops believe him, apparently even after they learn, the next day, that “The original diagnosis of a skull fracture was actually not true.” But by then the detectives feel Thomas is guilty, and even when Mason reveals this to Thomas, the interrogation goes on, pressing for an explanation of an injury that doesn’t exist.
“It was somewhat troubling,” observes First District Attorney of Rensselaer County Arthur Glass, “because it gave some ammunition to the defense to challenge the medical testimony.” It also gave Glass pause, he says, when he saw that the detectives lied to Thomas (“The police tactics were something we were concerned about, there was some trickery and deceit, clearly Detective Mason told falsehoods”). At the same time, this approach is familiar to anyone who watches TV cop shows: interrogators lie to do their jobs. As Fountain puts it, “When we’re speaking to you, we’re of course lying. We’ll say whatever we have to, to get you to tell the truth.”
Ideally, cops keep track of what’s true and what’s not. Sometimes, the line becomes unclear. Fountain and Mason have been interviewing suspects for years. They’ve taken a few classes and know the protocol (which the film lays out in clips from the training film, “Interviewing and Interrogation,” featuring the nine steps of the Reid Technique). But the training only takes you so far, Fountain, adds: “You still have to be able to talk to people, and me and Adam, we work well together. We kind of go with the flow and make things up as we go along.”
As the film shows, the “flow” in the Thomas interview is increasingly disquieting. From the first moments, the detectives see him as a likely suspect—even before they know a crime has been committed. The defense will end up arguing that Matthew died of an infection, that this was the reason he had trouble breathing. But while his baby is at the hospital, police bring Thomas in, noting that he’s unemployed and must be depressed, that he takes care of seven kids, that he’s “very cold when he talked about his children.”
No one articulates that Thomas’ behavior may be a function of his own upset, his worry about his ailing baby and the unnerving circumstances of being interrogated. Instead, says Ofshe, the detectives interrogate: they tell Thomas they can help him, that they’ll arrest his wife and take their children away, that if only he tells them what they ant to hear—the story they offer him about throwing the baby—he can “go home.” Mason tells him, “You are so close, man, you are so close to making this right and you want this to come out. You want to do the right thing,” He gives Thomas an explanation for why he can’t remember what happened. “Maybe you ain’t lying, but you’re repressing those memories, nobody wants to remember harming his own kid, man.” And after 10 hours, Thomas believes him. He throws down the notebook.
As compelling as interrogation is, Scenes of a Crime makes clear the many other “scenes” where crimes occur during this process. Some of these scenes are rendered beautifully: low angle shots of the Troy PD stationhouse, a long empty hallway at the medical center, light glinting off the Hudson River, ivy climbing a brick wall. Decorous and imposing, these surfaces tell a story too, about the faith so many citizens hold in their institutions, the faith that legal systems, for instance seek truth. But as Scenes of a Crime reveals, these surfaces don’t tell whole stories.