Why would someone admit to a crime that they did not commit? It is very hard to believe that an innocent person would ever do such a thing. Yet it happens time and time again.
A Netflix Original The Confession Tapes takes an incisive look at this difficult subject by focusing on a number of controversial cases, from all over America, in which people were convicted primarily on the basis of a confession and little other evidence.
The creator of the series Kelly Loudenberg clearly shows how easily false confessions can occur, especially after long periods of police interrogation, in which the exhausted and overwrought suspect may begin to doubt their own memories and perceptions. Sometimes, police investigators (not always intentionally) can exacerbate this by suggesting that the suspect isn’t remembering things correctly.
In these instances, the police themselves may be suffering from “tunnel vision” after myopically fixating on the suspect, to the exclusion of all other exculpatory evidence. In the first episode of the series True East, 19-year-olds Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns became the prime suspects in the 1994 triple murder of Rafay’s parents and sister. The films shows how the police did not pursue any other compelling lines of inquiry and went to extraordinary lengths to extract confessions from Rafay and Burns, after becoming convinced of their guilt very early on in the case. The two men retracted their confessions, but were convicted of the murders in 2004.
A common theme of the series is people becoming suspects in murder investigations when they do not behave in the way that the police, media or public expect them to. The episode Down River examines how Lawrence DeLisle and his wife aroused suspicion when they presented a “flat affect” after surviving a horrific car accident, which killed their three children. When the couple didn’t appear to be absolutely devastated during a television interview they gave just after the incident, people began to wonder if they had deliberately planned the crash.
This is very similar to the Amanda Knox case, also the subject of a Netflix Original, in which Knox’s so-called “unusual behaviour” was pointed to repeatedly by the police and prosecution, during her trial, as evidence of her alleged involvement in the murder of her housemate.
Knox also gave a confession which she later recanted.
Loudenberg has done excellent work delving into a little understood aspect of the justice system that deserves way more attention. She doesn’t try to convince you of the innocence of the people profiled in this documentary, but she does raise credible doubts about the way in which they convicted.
Candice is the founder and editor of On Netflix Now. She has an MSc in Political Theory and thus can be usually found discussing ideas and culture. Her writing also appears on Imagine Athena and Thought Leader.
Follow her @CandiceCarrie