Depressing documentary Saturdays

Image via NYTimes article, "The Unstudied Art of Interrogation."
Image via NYTimes article, “The Unstudied Art of Interrogation.”

Sometimes (many times) I have these days to myself in my apartment so I can just watch mindless amounts of television and rest. Yesterday, I decided to watch (and listen to) nothing by depressing documentaries about false accusations and wrongful convictions.

First up, I watched “The Central Park Five.” (Give me a few seconds here to curse out the justice system and court of public opinion in my head. Thanks.) Talk about injustice.

The film “explores the story of the miscarriage of justice that engulfed Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, the black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of the horrific 1989 crime. The brutal beating and rape of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park provoked public outrage and sensational headlines during the prosecution and conviction of the five defendants. Less known is the story of the eventual exoneration of the men, who served full prison sentences.”

I remember that crime. Not vividly; I was very young. But I remember some news coverage and the front page of the New York tabloid newspapers. I remember my parents watching the news and having this opinion of New York as this super dangerous place.

Ken Burns did a masterful job on this documentary. The archival news coverage was something to see. It was an epically awful crime. Beat so bad that one of her eyes popped out of its socket. It was no surprise that the entire city wanted the rapist(s) caught.

What transpires (coerced confessions from five teens!) is disgusting. And it’s so easy to say “I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit,” this documentary shows how easily it could happen.

Next was “The Thin Blue Line,” a film by Errol Morris, “depicting the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. Adams’ case was reviewed and he was released from prison approximately a year after the film’s release.” This occurred in 1976.

This one didn’t include a false confession, but a pair of eye witnesses who were known liars. Oddly enough, after he was released, Adams sued Morris. You can read about that drama in Wikipedia.

After watching these two documentaries I thought (hoped), ‘there’s no way this could ever happen again, right? RIGHT?”


As a special bonus to my “depressing documentary Saturday,” I listened to a podcast of “This American Life,” where a segment featured a former police detective in Washington, D.C. who screwed up one of his first big homicide investigations by getting a 19-year-old homeless woman to admit to helping beat a man to death back in 1994 even though she was completely innocent.

Retired detective Jim Trainum basically admits that during 17 hours of questioning, he basically provided details of the crime, which she ended up using to “confess” after she simply couldn’t take the questioning anymore. She also had children she had been told she could get home to.

She was eventually charged with felony murder, failed a polygraph test, and spent months in jail. Months later, Trainum got ahold of the log at the homeless shelter where she’d been staying. He saw she was actually in the shelter during the murder and the charges were dropped.

In that same episode, “This American Life” examines the case of Jeffrey Womack, who spent most of his adult life as a suspect in one of Nashville’s most notorious crimes. And for all that time — until another man was convicted of the crime — Jeffrey refused to be questioned about it. He also spent much of that time being suspected of the crime by friends and neighbors.

You can listen to the episode, “Confessions, here.

These days, when we think of interrogations, it’s easy to conjure up images of suspected terrorists being questioned for hours on end in Guantanamo Bay. That’s our reality now. But do those interrogations work?

According to this article in the New York Times, there hasn’t been much research into the practice of interrogation at all.

“We don’t have any idea — other than anecdote or moral philosophy — what really works,” said Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, author of “Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror.”