The Confessions

The Confessions is an investigative documentary that looks into the case of four U.S. Navy seamen living in the hellish aftermath of falsely confessing to the 1997 rape and murder of a Virginia woman. Interviews with the convicted men expose the high-pressure interrogation methods used by police to extract confessions despite the absence of evidence connecting the sailors to the crime. It documents an unfortunate synergy of weak-willed suspects, a corrupt detective, and a justice system inured to the idea of confessions as an impenetrable roadblock on the path to innocence.  And of all things, a guilty man told them that he did it alone, but was ignored by the legal system. After watching this incredible documentary, I was amazed by how unethical some of our most trusted public servants can be. Amazing, the sheer audacity of those so-called officers of the law.  As for the police and prosecutors, do you really want justice?  Do you really want catch the violent criminal who committed such a hideous crime?  Or just lock someone up for the crime whether they did it or not?  Oh, the answer is: 1) The prosecutors do not want to admit they are wrong, and 2) They do not want a lawsuit for convicting the wrong people. Unfortunate, to say the least. These detectives just want to build a reputation for themselves at the expense of the innocents. The police seem to have tunnel vision.  It really showed how crooked some police officers can be, like this Norfolk homicide detective Ford, who coerced these confessions.  How could he lie as he does just to solve the case quickly? Does he sleep well? Has he a conscience?  In 2011 this same detective Robert Ford was sentenced to 12 years in prison for taking bribes from criminals in other cases.  It would baffle me for one completely innocent person to confess to such a terrible crime — but if it was a weak-willed and overly-stressed individual, you might be able to convince me. But how could this happen to seven of our nation’s military men? Every single one confessed after being implicated by a ‘conspirator’, a sailor who was just throwing out names and picking people out of a yearbook who he’d never met — giving names of other guys who had absolutely nothing to do with it — just because he was scared and intimidated.  This is an amazing study in human nature. I think it is an important piece to watch just for that one aspect. The most amazing thing is how four separate people were convinced to confess.  All seven were so terrified by a police officer that they confessed to a horrible crime to avoid the threat of the death penalty — despite the fact that they were totally innocent and the police certainly had no hard evidence on them.  It amazes me how people would confess to something they didn’t do. Some people are weak when it comes to getting interrogated, but I would have said I didn’t do it and then blocked the police out after that and asked for an attorney. There is no way I’d confess to something I didn’t do. The attorney is shady and is obviously working with the police by getting recommendations, charging high fees, and not actually defending the client!  Who would pay a lawyer that was recommended by a shady police office? What is wrong with people? And as for the jury? Confessions or not, the facts and the evidence have to add up as well. After watching this movie, you realize that only one thing ties these four men to the dead woman: their ‘confessions’.  Absolutely nothing else corroborates the story that these men went in and killed this woman. It simply doesn’t make any sense. Step back and look at the story being fed to you as a jury member by the prosecution and think about it logically.  Did eight men go in and kill the woman, seven of whom had zero violent offenses in their past, and whose DNA proves their innocence? Or did one guy go in and kill the woman, a man who admits the crime and says he acted alone — a man who had raped and murdered nearby on two other occasions and whose DNA proves his guilt?  And the actual rapist murderer gets away with it because the justice system couldn’t admit to being wrong.  But I think I am feeling what one gentleman in the program said happens to everyone, including judges, juries and attorneys: I cannot get past the confessions — no matter what the other evidence is or is not.  I just can’t come up with a good answer to the question: Why would someone confess to a brutal crime if they didn’t do it? Even if the interrogator bullies them into it. It’s hard to come to terms with it all, and that’s why I think this is such an important story that every American should know about.  The death penalty was used as a threat to get these men to sign false confessions.  Those who believe in the death penalty will be brought up short by this terrible and tragic story. It’s stories like this one that keep me from angrily wishing for the death penalty when each new crime happens.   What a legal catastrophe from top to bottom. Watching this video just proves that the justice system in Virginia is broken. Some laws need to be changed. A camera should be on 24/7. And viewed by someone who is neutral, or at least by the client’s lawyer, maybe the jury too. Interrogators should not get away with lying about DNA or polygraphs. To me, when they do this then they too have become criminals –bearing false witness, perjury or something!  I am appalled by the whole miscarriage of justice. This is another clear example of how our system is flawed. Innocent people are sent to prison every day, due to malfunction of the judicial system.  Here is a quote from The Economist: “Since 1992 the Innocence Project, an American legal charity, has used DNA evidence to help exonerate 271 people who were wrongly convicted of crimes, sometimes after they had served dozens of years in prison. But a mystery has emerged from the case reports. Despite being innocent, around a quarter of these people had confessed or pleaded guilty to the offences of which they were accused.”  Perhaps this story also raises another question:  while I respect our service men and women, is the Navy today recruiting this type of individual — who is of minimum intelligence, who never questions authority, and who is incredibly passive and malleable? I have practiced criminal law for almost 30 years. These cases are a prime example of why people involved in the criminal law system call it the “legal system” and not the “justice system.” Justice has little to do with the final outcome of any case. Do not assume that law enforcement personnel and prosecutors are the “good guys.” Sometimes they are and sometimes they are not–their job is to get convictions. If the individuals convicted are truly guilty, then that’s just a bonus. These types of miscarriages occur more frequently that the general public would believe.   I cannot figure out why on earth these men are still having to fight their way towards freedom. Look it up on Google — since this documentary was made, Derek Tice did win his freedom when (after several appeals and overturns) it was finally ruled in the US Court of Appeals that he was in fact innocent. Finally! Only three more men to be exonerated. Virginia, pull your head out of your rear end and admit you were wrong.  It seems like everyone involved in this travesty of justice refuses to admit their mistakes out of fear of a big money lawsuit.  I hope these guys sue and win millions over their ruined lives because of a good system gone bad.  Whatever happened to not incriminating oneself? There was no such thing in this case. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects witnesses from being forced to incriminate themselves. To “plead the Fifth” is a refusal to answer a question because the response could form self-incriminating evidence. Historically, the legal protection against self-incrimination is directly related to the question of torture for extracting information and confessions.  In Miranda v. Arizona (1966) the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination requires law enforcement officials to advise a suspect interrogated in custody of his rights to remain silent and to obtain anattorney. It further notes that “any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to police under any circumstances.” Miranda warnings must be given before there is any “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody.” The suspect must be warned, prior to the interrogation, that he/she has the right to remain silent, that anything he/she says may be used against him/her in a court of law, that he/she has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that, if he/she cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for him/her. Further, only after such warnings are given and understood, may the individual knowingly waive them and agree to answer questions or make a statement. Moral of the story: Never and I mean never talk to the police no matter what, even if you had nothing to do with the crime. It’s your right. Ask for a lawyer instead.  Do not confess to something you haven’t done. This is a MUST SEE for anyone who believes confessions are always reliable. I felt so angry watching this. A chilling story.  Good movie. Well worth watching. It’s a real wake-up call. This edition of the investigative PBS series by producer Ofra Bikel shows Frontline at the top of its game. Documentary Frontline 2010 NR 83 minutes. (Also see Death by Fireand An Ordinary Crime, both by Frontline.)



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