Dr. After 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.
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?”
The 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.”
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.)
June 2014 update: Adrian Thomas was found innocent in a second trial, reported here.