Saturday, November 27, 2010

Frontline: "The Confessions" (PBS, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

This morning I also watched the November 9 Frontline episode "The Confessions," directed by Ofra Bikel (who did the "Innocence Lost" programs in the 1990's exposing the myths behind one particularly high-profile prosecution of alleged ritual Satanic sexual abusers of children) and another show themed on the conflicts between actual truth and the priorities of the legal system. It all began in Norfolk, Virginia in 1997, when a sailor returned home from sea expecting to be reunited with his wife, Michelle Bosco, and instead found her corpse, repeatedly stabbed and also raped, in their bedroom. The sailor went to the home of his next-door neighbor, also a Navy man, named Danial [sic] Williams, and called 9/11 from Williams' home -- and the police suspected Williams of the crime, arrested him, gave him a polygraph test (which they told him he'd failed even though he'd passed it) and finally, after 11 hours of high-stress interrogation by a police detective named Robert Glenn Ford (who usually went by his middle and last names, perhaps relishing a connection with the old movie star), confessed to a crime he hadn't in fact committed.

There was only one minor problem with the police case -- the DNA from the semen found in Michelle Bosco's body didn't match Williams' -- and rather than acknowledge their error and let Williams go, they concocted the idea that there must have been more than one perpetrator and if they just leaned on Williams even harder they'd get the names of his co-rapists. The police fastened onto another sailor named Joe Dick, Jr. -- a slightly built, nerdy guy whose face was dominated by the black-framed Buddy Holly-style glasses he wore -- and Detective Ford, who really emerges as the principal villain of the piece, ran him through the interrogation meatgrinder and got Dick not only to confess but ultimately to believe on one level that he actually had committed the crime. When Dick's DNA didn't match the crime scene sample either, instead of re-examining their theory of the crime the police started leaning harder on both Williams and Dick, deciding that they were going to keep expanding the number of people they thought were involved in Michelle Bosco's rape and murder until they finally found the man whose DNA would match the crime scene. Ultimately they charged eight different people -- including Omar Ballard, an African-American (the other seven were all white) who was already in prison for another brutal sexual assault committed two weeks before Michelle Bosco's rape-murder, and whose DNA did match the crime scene -- but rather than reach the common-sense conclusion that Ballard was Bosco's rapist and killer and none of the others were involved (ironically Ballard actually maintained in his own confession that he acted alone, as he did in a phone interview from prison included in this show), they decided that the seven white guys had met in the parking lot of the apartment building in which the Boscos lived, they'd already planned to rape and murder Michelle and they just couldn't figure out how to get into her apartment, whereupon Ballard volunteered to help them.

Four of the men were actually convicted on the basis of their confessions, and one of them served out his sentence, while the other three were granted a "conditional pardon" by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine shortly before he left office -- he set them free but did not exonerate them, which means they still have to register as sex offenders and if they want to live in a new neighborhood, all their neighbors have to be told of their crimes and asked if they are willing to allow them to be there, and if just one neighbor says no, they can't live there. Their attorneys are still working on their total freedom, but the main point of the show (one can't help but be reminded of Franz Kafka's The Trial -- though if Joseph K. had sought to get out of being punished himself by implicating seven other people The Trial would be an even kinkier and more frightening book than it is!) is the unreliability of confessions, especially when (as here) the police recorded only the parts they wanted to record, after they had (at least according to the defendants) heavily coached them, smoothed out inconsistencies in their stories and made sure the confessions matched the physical evidence -- which meant having to go over the stories with the defendants and change them as the police theory of the case changed -- so there's no documentary evidence that the defendants were coerced into making these confessions.

Most people who condemned the use of torture by U.S. military and contractors at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere against detainees in the so-called "war on terror" assumed that the normal system of police interrogation is an acceptable alternative to torture; what this program documents is that sometimes a really harsh, in-your-face interrogation can have the same aspect as physical torture, especially in the degree to which an interrogator can make the subject's life so miserable that eventually s/he gives the officer what s/he wants just to get the experience to stop. One interviewee mentioned a practice of the medieval Inquisition of "showing the instruments" -- before they actually started torturing anybody, they would show the tools by which they would torture them if they felt they had to, and many people got the message and confessed under the threat of torture without the authorities needing to torture them for real. Bikel's film argues that the constantly reiterated invocations of the death penalty by Detective Ford were the equivalent of "showing the instruments" -- over and over again Ford told the people he was interrogating that if they maintained their innocence and went to trial, they would be sentenced to death, and therefore confessing was the only way they could save their lives -- which certainly hints that the real reason law enforcement generally supports the death penalty is that if it were eliminated, they would have that much less leverage to get accused people to talk or, later in the process, to accept plea bargains and thereby eliminate the risk of a trial.

It's a dispiriting look at how our criminal justice system works (or doesn't) and how easy it really is for sufficiently determined law-enforcement people to railroad the innocent -- and another argument for the proposition that all police interrogations should be recorded, not just the parts it suits the police to record. (The California legislature passed such a bill just this year, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it.)