About ten days ago, Amanda Knox released her book on her wrongful conviction in Italy and its aftermath. Reaction to it has centered to an uncomfortable degree on her sex life–uncomfortable because, instead of analyzing how the prosecution twisted Knox’s sexual experiences to distract the media from the massive hole at the center of their case, they repeat the prosecution’s error, suggesting any kink of Knox’s is evidence that she’s a bad person who might have committed murder. (Even if Knox were into all the things she’s accused of being into, that doesn’t prove that she was in the room where her roommate died at the time of her murder with a weapon in her hand.)
A documentary on how prosecutors use the sex lives of female defendants like Knox to slut shame them into prison cells would be useful, and if anyone knows of one please pass it along to me. But there are excellent documentaries that bear on other aspects of Knox’s story: investigations that start with hunches about “strange behavior” instead of crime scene evidence, accusations of “deviance” that fuel suspicion and short circuit skepticism, prosecutors who should have their pictures posted by definitions of motivated reasoning, investigators who bully defendants into false confessions. Knox isn’t the first person who had to deal with these things, which are crucial to understand if want to stop what happened to her from happening to someone else.
The Thin Blue Line (Erroll Morris, 1988)
A classic of the form. Erroll Morris’s documentary tells the story of Randall Dale Allen, who was falsely convicted of the murder of a police officer in Texas. The person who fingered Allen for the crime, a juvenile named David Harris, was actually the killer; but Texas prosecutors preferred Allen as a suspect, at least in part because they could pursue the death penalty against him.To this end, prosecutors employed an “expert” who testified that Allen was a sociopath who’d kill again if freed. It turns out this “expert” said the same thing about every defendant he “studied”. This film was responsible for Allen’s release from Texas’s state prison after twelve years of incarceration (four of them on death row).
Frontline: The Confessions (PBS, 2010)
A woman is brutally raped and murdered in an apartment building. The police interview one of her neighbors, who tells them that another neighbor, Danial Williams, was “obsessed” with the murdered woman. The detective arrests Williams and his roommate and subjects them both to lengthy, aggressive interrogations that led to confessions that contradicted each other and bore little relationship to the evidence at the scene. Nevertheless, the confessions were used to ensnare Williams, his roommate and two other men into a lurid prosecution tale of gang rape and murder. A jury sent Williams and two other men to prison for life. A third was tossed in stir for eight years. The actual murderer, Omar Ballard, has said to anyone who’ll listen that he didn’t know these men and that he acted alone in killing the woman. The scientific evidence backs Ballard’s story, but police, prosecutors, and the victim’s family refuse to accept that. This film demonstrates exactly how police secure confessions from innocent people, and how this placed the innocent in binds almost impossible to loosen.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (HBO 1996)
This is the story of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, known collectively as the West Memphis Three. They were punk and metal music fans whose personalities and interests clashed with the conservative, evangelical Arkansas town where they lived. When three young boys are found murdered in a ditch, the locals leap to the conclusion of a Satanic ritual murder. Police arrest the three boys for the crime on the basis of their interests and personalities, extract a confession from most vulnerable of the three (Misskelley had an IQ of 70), and use that confession to put Misskelley and Baldwin in the slammer for life and Echols on Arkansas’ death row, even though evidence placing them at the scene or connecting any of the three boys with the victims is slim to non-existent. Here, as with Knox, we have police from a provincial town starting with the belief that a person is strange or deviant instead of following the physical evidence where it led. (To be fair, the police probably felt they had no choice. Knowing almost nothing about handling a homicide, the cops contaminated or destroyed virtually all the physical evidence when they botched the crime scene investigation.)
All these documentaries tell us one thing: many of the ways we (meaning prosecutors, police and the public) assess guilt in criminal cases are deeply flawed. We leap to conclusions and refuse to revise them in the face of the facts, and in doing so, we ruin lives and destroy reputations.
We have to learn to stop ourselves and think.