“Scenes of a Crime” Hits Home, Hard

Dr. ScenesOfACrime copyAfter watching “Scenes of a Crime” over the weekend, I now know why this potent documentary has garnered so much praise.  Filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh have interspersed actual footage from the lengthy police interrogation of an accused father in Troy, New York, with excerpts from Reid Technique training films and commentary by key players in the case. The result is a clean, careful, and gripping illustration of how a man can be manipulated into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit.

The film is especially relevant in the child abuse arena, as it also documents a hasty and inaccurate diagnosis of inflicted infant head trauma that triggers a legal nightmare. As explained in a film review by astute critic Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times:

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 [Adrian] 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.

At the risk of ruining the suspense, Thomas’s son Matthew did not in fact have a fractured skull—nor did he show any bruising, grip marks, or other external signs of either shaking or impact—and laboratory tests later revealed a serious systemic infection, missed by not only the treating doctors but also the pathologist who performed the autopsy.

adrianThomasThe most chilling aspect of “Scenes” is the unshakeable confidence of the police and prosecutors, who never look back even as the medical evidence unravels.

In the course of a 9-hour interrogation over two days, detectives Adam Mason and Ronald Fountain lie to their suspect—repeatedly and cruelly—threaten to target his wife, argue with him, pretend to befriend him, pray with him, hug him, and flatly reject his repeated denials.

“You want to save your son’s life, man?” Mason asks at one point, “Why are you holding out on me?”

scalesThe detectives start their investigation with two suspects, Thomas and his wife, the only adults in the apartment when Matthew’s breathing problems started. They eventually tell Thomas, falsely, that his wife is blaming him, and if he doesn’t confess they will go after her. “My wife is a good wife,” he tells them. “I don’t believe my wife did that, but if it comes down to it, I’ll take the blame for it.” Detectives explain that he can’t just say he wants to take the blame, he has to tell them exactly how it happened, convince them that he did it.

Viewers of the film have an advantage over members of the jury when watching the interrogation footage, a commentary by sociologist Richard Ofshe, emeritus professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has spent decades studying why innocent people make false confessions. Thomas’s attorneys planned to call Ofshe to the stand, but Judge Andrew Ceresia approved a prosecution motion to exclude his testimony.

After watching “Scenes,” I found myself more annoyed than usual by news coverage that treats the prosecution version of an infant head injury as truth, like the case summary provided in the report filed by Bob Gardinier at the Times Union in 2012, when an appeals court rejected Thomas’s petition:

Three times, Thomas threw his son on a bed in September 2008, inflicting brain injuries that resulted in the infant’s death. The defense maintained the baby died from sepsis, an aggressive bacterial blood infection.

I don’t know how the wildly different opinions about cause of death were presented in court, but Rensselaer County assistant district attorney Arthur Glass explains on camera that prosecution pathologist Dr. Michael Sikirica did not deny that the child had a systemic infection—although he did not mention it in his autopsy report—but the doctor believed that “the sepsis was secondary to the head trauma.”

Melissa Calusinski, 22 years old in 2009

Melissa Calusinski, 22 years old in 2009

This resistance to new input was echoed this past summer in a prosecutor’s response in Lake County, Illinois, after a new coroner, Dr. Thomas Rudd, reopened the 2011 murder conviction of day care worker Melissa Calusinski. Unconvinced by the original reports and slides, Rudd prepared a set of iron stains, which confirmed the presence of an older brain injury the day the boy quit breathing in Calusinki’s care, in January of 2009.

Although even the original pathologist, Dr. Eupil Choi, agrees with the new findings, the state is fighting a new trial for Calusinki, according to this report by Ruth Fuller in the Chicago Sun Times:

Lake County’s top prosecutor said that even if the new findings of Choi are correct, Calusinski should still be held accountable for Benjamin’s death if her actions, at the now closed Minee Subee in the Park day care center, exacerbated his injury.

Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, elected to the job in 2012, has worked to restore the reputation of an office beset with several wrongful convictions, a record that has drawn national attention.

But in Calusinski’s case, Nerheim said he reviewed the new findings and believe they simply rehash the defense’s arguments at trial. Nerheim said he has found nothing to give him pause about the guilty verdict.

Like Thomas’s attorneys, Calusinski’s defense team had consulted forensic neuropathologist Dr. Jan Leestma. In Thomas’s case, Leestma requested additional tests that confirmed an infection that was caught in the initial blood work but never followed up. In Calusinski’s case, Leestma concluded from the original reports, photographs, and slides that the toddler had an older brain bleed the day he died, as confirmed later by Rudd’s further analysis. From the 2011 trial coverage by Tony Gordon at the Daily Herald:

Leestma said it was possible Benjamin had severely aggravated the existing injury by throwing himself backward and striking his head on the floor, as the defense has claimed throughout the case.

He also dismissed the notion of the force that killed the toddler being equal to a one- to two-story fall, saying the injuries an infant would suffer from such an event would be dramatically more severe than what killed Benjamin.

Like Thomas, Calusinski had broken down after hours of interrogation and given the police the story they were after, the “confession” that sealed her conviction.

I am grateful to the people who made “Scenes of a Crime,” which I think will help educate the public about the reality of coerced confessions. I wish only that the film had also been able to address the unanswered question:  Why the doctors were so sure Matthew Thomas had been murdered. (If you don’t know the almost certain answer, please see the home page of this site.)

You can rent “Scenes of a Crime” through a number of on-line sources, as described on the home video page of the film’s web site.

February 2014 update:  An appeals court has vacated Mr. Thomas’s conviction, reported here. You can read the decision here.

June 2014 update:  Adrian Thomas was found innocent in a second trial, reported here.

9 Comments

Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, coerced confessions, Falsely accused, parents accused, Reid Technique, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

9 responses to ““Scenes of a Crime” Hits Home, Hard

  1. Melinda McElheny

    Ugh…Sue. I shed new tears after reading this. I hadn’t heard of the documentary until your post.
    As you will recall, my own husband was accused in the death of our daughter the following year in Rensselaer County, and was later tried in Judge Ceresia’s court. I heard much about the Adrian Thomas trial and the medical evidence in the case. I later learned that my best friend was on the grand jury who (reluctantly) indicted him. She can’t–she won’t–talk about it.
    As I got to know the army of heroes in the Rensselaer County Public Defender’s Office, I saw the emotional weight his conviction had on them. This was one of two cases where an accused father was wholeheartedly believed to be innocent by then-PD Jerome Frost and his team. We reaped the benefit of the passion that came from their tragic loss in his case. We also had the benefit of their renewed resolve to fight hard and to win for the truth. But I specifically also had the opportunity to see firsthand Mr. Frost’s personal pain and dedication to making it right. I still believe that one of the primary factors in his assignment of Greg Cholakis to my husband’s case was that he was not able to commit himself: Mr. Frost was still wrapped up, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, in the Adrian Thomas case, which technically could have ended for him with the verdict. It didn’t. He spent every day seeking answers, seeking opportunities to turn it right, and feeling that he must succeed.
    In our case, it began similarly: a primary physician made a judgment that a murder had been committed, outside the scope of his expertise; the state police were alerted immediately; the state police then instructed the medical examiner that it had been a homicide–which he later admitted in his grand jury testimony; the police then used the medical examiner’s initial “opinion”–which he’d borrowed from them–to interrogate us. There were the same lies, the same rush to judgment. The difference was in our level of knowledge and support. We were not easily intimidated. We quickly began to recognize their lies. It was luck. And we were white.
    Some days, it feels as though we are all fighting a losing battle. Americans become more judgmental, not less. They become more engrossed in forming hasty opinions and negative assumptions, instead of growing more curious and truth-seeking. They find it easier to believe stories of evil and violence and “infallible” internet news, instead of believing there may be more to the story. Reporters such as Mr. Gardinier do nothing for the Truth. I saw so many misquotes, misinterpretations, and misrepresentations from him personally, that I began to wonder whether he was on the prosecutor’s payroll. Now I must watch the documentary, to see (hopefully) what happens when people go looking for the truth.
    Anyway…even though my tears are fresh, I wanted to thank you for continuing to focus our attention on those cases which are easily forgotten by most people.

  2. John Fryer

    johnfryer@orange.fr

    As many real experts (Dr Innis) say:

    How can ten thousand people all use one single method of unspeakabe horror to kill babies after vaccines when the signs they are convicted by are the same as those of scurvy (and that proven by Richet 1913 Nobel winner and so carefully explained harm to capillaries by Dale ten years on).

    Damage to all bones in the body and bleeding in eyes and brain.

    Hess in 1920 knew of the fractures and bleeding bones but only had a glimpse of the carnage to the brain as neuroimaging was not known then (MRI, Cat Scans etc)

  3. Pingback: “Scenes of a Crime” – Documentary of a False Confession | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  4. Another Susan

    Thank you for an excellent article. Can’t wait to see the film. Multiply Adrian Thomas by thousands and the result is innocent breadwinners and caretakers in prison (at public expense), broken and bankrupt families (perhaps forced to rely on public assistance for survival), and undeniably innocent children who are traumatized for life. All this in the name of “child protection.”

    DNA exonerations brought to light factors that can lead to false convictions, yet the system goes merrily along repeating the same mistakes over and over. Interrogation techniques designed to break hardened criminals are used on babysitters, young parents, and little old grandmas who trust police and believe their innocence will protect them. The public doesn’t seem to care until it happens to them or someone they know. I wonder. If people counted the cost, even just the financial cost, would they wake up and raise a protest?

  5. John Fryer

    For Sally Clark it only needed 10 of 12 to prove guilt and get her double life in prison. And again the UK reason for this was because ruthless criminals were threatening the jury with dire threats to them and / or their family. The idea of the 10 only to convict meant that it was impossible to know who convicted and who didn’t.

    So a justice system adapted to convict criminals the the jury might fear was also used for this loving mother who had actually got her son vaccinated at the earliest possible moment as she was so supportive of the health care for her son.

    She also cooperated fully with doctors and all to help find the cause for cot deaths. And an error in dates by her husband was used partly to convict her!

  6. Anne

    Sue, this is the exact technique that I described and spoke of in my presentation at EBMSI…it is a frightening approach to the truth??!

  7. naztya

    The only way to win against medical experts in court is to find another medical experts who can tell what is wrong with your baby and if court accepts diagnoses your family is going to be ok, otherwise children are going to be taken away and parents sent to prison at least for neglect. My family court hearing just finished on Friday although 2 out of 3 experts said that the alarm bells are ringing in this particular case as some features found in this case are not typical of shaking injury, it looks more like some vascular disease, however, they could not identify what disease is,and other features retinal hemorrhage, subdural hemorrhage are highly suggestive of shaking injury. The decision will be made by the judge in November whether or not its non accidental head injury. Family court works on 51 to 49 percent balance of probability, so I am rather sure that the judge will say it was a shaking injury. I am absolutely heart broken as it means that I won’t be able to be a mum to my own children. However, irregardless what the judge decides I wont stop searching for true causes of my son’s illness.

  8. Pingback: Jury Finds Adrian Thomas Not Guilty | On SBS

  9. Jill Harrell

    Detective Mason and detective Fountain, you should be ASHAMED of yourselves ! You are an embarrassment to truth and justice.

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