Category Archives: Reid Technique

“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

Melissa Calusinski

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.

January 2015 update:  48 Hours has prepared a riveting documentary about Melissa Calusinki, “Blaming Melissa.”

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.

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

Communication, and Miscommunication, in the Courtroom

A courthouse in New Mexico.

Three legal developments this week illustrate that the steady push against unfounded diagnoses of shaken baby syndrome is having its effect.

A Grand Jury Listens in New Mexico

A grand jury in Taos has declined to charge a young father with the shaking death of his son, after hearings that included testimony by emergency physician Dr. Steven Gabaeff, an outspoken critic of shaken baby syndrome theory.

Reporter Chandra Johnson’s first-rate article in The Taos News implies that this was a triad-only case with complicating factors. The child was only three weeks old, and the parents had taken him to the doctor not long before his melt-down because he was congested and was having trouble breathing. On the day of the incident, the father reported, he was again having breathing trouble, with “not much of an appetite.”

Ms. Johnson quotes defense attorney John Day in the fourth paragraph:

“In recent years, the whole shaken baby theory has come under fire as misguided and wrong,” Day said in a phone interview Tuesday (Sept. 4). “There are a combination of relatively normal illnesses that could have caused brain swelling that put pressure on the retinal tissue.”

Montana Innocence Project Steps Up

In Montana, meanwhile, the Innocence Project has filed an appeal on behalf of Robert J. Wilkes, convicted of killing his 3 1/2-month-old son in 2008. The case against Wilkes rested on two presumptions:

  • his son’s brain injury was the result of abuse, and
  • the abuse must have happend in the few minutes between Wilkes’ feeeding the boy a bottle while visiting with the babysitter, who was also a neighbor, and the child’s meltdown soon after the father and son arrived home.

According to Gwen Florio’s refreshingly thoughtful article in the Missoulian, the appeal argues both that Wilkes received ineffective assistance of counsel and that new evidence shows his son suffered from a rare and deadly liver disorder. The coverage quotes the Innocence Project’s appeal:

“Over the past decade, opposition to SBS (shaken baby syndrome) has grown from a trickle to a virtual avalanche.”

Readers of this blog are likely to endorse the author’s final paragraph, about her talk with Montana Innocence Project executive director Jessie McQuillan, who “said she’d like to see Wilkes’ case added to the national conversation on the issue.”

Canadian Judge Blasts Reid Technique

Provincial Court Judge Michael Dinkel in Alberta has issued an opinion that both dismissed aggravated assault charges against day-care operator Christa Lynn Chapel and blasted the Reid Technique, an interrogation protocol used routinely by police investigators.

Denkel’s decision discarded Chapel’s confession to inflicting head injury on a child, which was delivered after eight hours of interrogation by officers the judge described as “a desperate investigative team that was bent on extracting a confession at any cost.”

Reporter Douglas Quan’s well-researched piece in The Calgary Herald quotes the judge’s opinion at length, including this statement:

“I denounce the use of this technique in the strongest terms possible and find that its use can lead to overwhelmingly oppressive situations that can render false confessions and cause innocent people to be wrongfully imprisoned.”

If you missed the post last winter about the interrogation that led to a dubious confession by teenager Nga Truang, you can see it here.

Not Everybody Listens Carefully

The Columbia Missourian ran a poignant story last week about a young father taking a plea bargain. He originally reported that his daughter had fallen out of her crib, and that he had shaken her to see if he could rouse her.  The doctors insisted the shaking had been violent, and the police heard a confession.

While accepting the father’s guilty plea on an assault charge, the judge asked the young man if he knew what he had done wrong, and the father said something very much like, “I guess that would be the shaking part.”

Side note: The National Institutes of Health infant CPR advice sheet begins its list of first aid steps with, “1.  Check for alertness. Shake or tap the infant gently.”

This story was but is no longer on line at http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2012/09/05/man-pleads-guilty-assault-shaking-baby/

Finally, a tragic young mother in Virginia pled to charges of child neglect, again after changing her initial story under further questioning. Astonishingly, she confessed to interrogators that she had shaken her son, but the autopsy showed no signs of shaken baby syndrome.

Reporter Amber Lester Kennedy, understandably, I admit, treated the abuse as a given in her article in the Williamburg Yorktown Daily.

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Filed under Damian Stow, Innocence Network, Innocence Project, parents accused, Reid Technique, Robert J. Wilkes, Sabrina A. Battad, Sabrina Battad