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Bad Evidence: The Fictions of Interrogation

DOI: | Issue 5 | October 2020

Maud Craigie


Indications of Guilt, pt.1 examines the structures of American police interrogation and their relationship to fictional screen representations of law enforcement.

In 2017, I travelled to Texas to train in America’s widely used form of psychological interrogation. The technique has faced scrutiny in recent years due to high false confession rates. The film combines staged and documentary methods to explore how psychological interrogation can function as a process for creating fiction, whilst ostensibly seeking to establish truth.

This text will outline the research-based methodology I used, which involved embedding myself within a law enforcement community, as well as interviewing detectives, lawyers, false confessions experts and academics. I will discuss the interdisciplinary theoretical contexts I drew upon and the expansion of the True Crime genre in popular culture.

Research Statement

If you type ‘Interrogation’ into YouTube, one of the top hits is Jodi Arias Interrogation Tape. Part 1, a 2-hour 40-minute video, that has been viewed 1.1 million times. Shot from above, the lo-definition video shows a small room with a round table and two chairs. A woman sits with her head on the table, her arms handcuffed behind her back. For the first 1 minute 14 seconds the video is entirely still, a flickering photograph. After 5 minutes, Detective Flores enters the room and tells the woman she is not free to leave:

I’m a police officer. I have to read you your rights. I’m sure you’ve heard them on TV. I have to read them off this card, but they are basically the same.

What does it mean to be deeply familiar with a process through television before experiencing it in real life? In what ways do fictional representations of law enforcement affect interrogation methods? Since 2014 the True Crime genre has taken on ‘a central role in American popular culture’ (Hughes, 2016), exposing the inner workings of the US criminal justice system. Over Christmas 2015, the most watched programme on UK Netflix was the American documentary Making a Murderer, a series in which we are shown original interrogation tapes, much like Jodi Arias’ above. Equivalent tapes are not made public in the UK, so our primary understanding of confession is shaped through the prism of the American system.

In 2017, I travelled to Texas to train in America’s widely used form of psychological interrogation, which has faced scrutiny in recent years due to high false confession rates. This research trip provided the raw material for a moving image work, Indications of Guilt, pt.1 (52 mins, upcoming) which combines staged and documentary methods to explore how interrogation can function as a process for creating fiction, whilst ostensibly seeking to establish truth.

Much of the critical research into the influence of popular culture on the criminal justice system has taken place within the context of legal academia and has focused on the court room. Judge Donald E. Shelton’s research looks at the ‘CSI effect’: the potential influence that television programmes like Crime Scene Investigation have on jury expectations and decision making. Richard K Sherwin, New York Law School Professor and author of When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line Between Law and Popular Culture runs the Visual Persuasion Project, which, amongst other things, looks at the effect of visual popular culture in the court room. Similarly, documentary films like Jeremiah Zagar’s Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (2014), which follows the first televised USA court case, examine the role that the media play in guiding trial narratives.

Given the influence of film and television within the context of the court room, I was interested in what role they might play in police processes before a case goes to trial. Film and Media scholar Stella Bruzzi notes the similarities between a trial and a documentary: both have an ‘allegiance to Chekhovian logic – to the lawyer and the director’s need to create links between events, to find causality and narrative cogency’ (Bruzzi, 2016). In criminal trials, the interrogation of a suspect can provide the foundation for this narrative. Psychologists Saul Kassin and Gísli Guðjónsson’s research focuses on interrogation and false confessions. They liken a police-induced confession to a Hollywood production - it is ‘scripted by the interrogator's theory of the case, shaped through questioning and rehearsal, directed by the questioner, and enacted by the suspect’ (Kassin and Guðjónsson, 2004).

In Texas, I was the only attendee on the Advanced Psychological Interrogation seminar who was not training to become a homicide detective. Many of the detectives I spoke to stated they had chosen to work in homicide due to television portrayals of their profession. As one detective told me, ‘when you see on TV… homicide detectives are like the A-Team - and I just wanted to be the best’.

I was interested in learning the processes of interrogation, not only for research purposes, but as a methodology that I could co-opt and use. The use of moving image and audio recordings has massively changed interrogation processes in recent years. Texas state operates under a one-party consent law, which means it is legal to record someone without their knowledge. This is used by police as a method to record suspects covertly – the idea being that they will be more honest and less conscious of consequence if they do not know they are being recorded. Similarly, the one-party consent law permitted me to record the detectives without their knowledge. In contrast to the scope of an academic text, moving image enabled me to shape a work that was able to mirror the interrogators’ tricks.

False confessions, both videotaped and handwritten, confound jurors. They cannot imagine confessing to a crime they did not commit and have been ‘acculturated to conflate seeing with believing.’ (Biber, 2018, 47). However, false confessions are more common than jurors tend to believe. According to Innocence Project data, in the USA more than a quarter of people exonerated for a crime they did not commit had falsely confessed. The more serious the crime the higher the risk, with over sixty percent of those exonerated for murder having confessed to the alleged crime.

Camera angle bias has been found to play a role in how likely jurors are to believe whether a confession is coerced or voluntary. Psychology Professor at Ohio University, G Daniel Lassiter, found that if the camera focuses on the suspect, jurors are more like to think they are guilty compared to a camera angle which shows both the interrogator and suspect in profile. I was interested in how many of the issues related to interrogation processes, such as camera angle, the notion of seeing as believing, the use of covert recordings and the construction of narrative all directly relate to the medium of film. Consequently, a moving image output enabled a direct exploration of many of the problems highlighted in the academic research surrounding psychological interrogation and false confessions.

At the police training academy, I met a retired detective who now teaches interrogation techniques to new police recruits. This, he showed me, is partially done through the use of clips from films like LA Confidential (1997) and TV programmes like The Wire (2002-2008). The detective played me a YouTube clip of The Wire – Bunk’s Interrogation Technique, in which Detective Moreland gets a suspect to confess by pretending that a photocopier is in fact a polygraph machine. This, as the Texan detective told me, is ‘one hundred percent legal here in Texas.’ The YouTube clip is used to exemplify trickery: a legal form of deceit used to garner confessions. In the United States, police are allowed to imply they have evidence when they don’t. Detectives are taught to use props during interrogation, including a dummie file – a folder filled with papers, a DVD and a lab result envelope which ostensibly contains incriminating evidence about a suspect. This file is placed in the room but never explicitly referred to. Words are manipulated to similar effect – dancing along the edges of what is legally permissible. A confession is inadmissible if the detective offers to ‘help’ a suspect. The interrogation instructor suggests alternative phrasing: “‘We’re here to ‘work’ with you’... What does that mean? Doesn’t mean nothing, but sounds good doesn’t it?”

The title of this text, bad evidence, is a term used by police in the USA to describe information which goes against their theory of the case. Under US law, police are under no obligation to investigate potentially exculpatory evidence, once they have ‘probable cause’ to believe the suspect is guilty (Molnar v. Care House, 2008). The job of the detective, in other words, is to create a story.

Following her arrest, Jodi Arias was featured on the True Crime TV show 48 Hours in an episode titled Picture Perfect: The Trial of Jodi Arias (2008). The sensationalised 48 Hours interview with Arias would go on to be used as evidence in her trial. In 2013, Jodi Aris: Dirty Little Secret, a made-for-TV movie, dramatised Arias’ case. The film’s courtroom scenes were shot two days after the conclusion of the real-life trial, with portions of the original script rewritten to include excerpts from the court proceedings. Jodi Arias’ case exemplifies a complex and interrelated feedback loop between fictional representation and the criminal justice system: TV influences police procedure during the interrogation; Arias’ case becomes content for television, which then directly influences the trial when presented as evidence; Arias’ story is then further theatricalised as a movie, in symbiosis with the outcome of her trial.

Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, a dramatised account of the Central Park jogger case, in which five Black and Hispanic teenage boys were interrogated for a crime they did not commit, was one of the most watched series on Netflix during 2019. Four out of the five boys, known as the Central Park Five, were coerced into giving false confessions. The interrogation firm with which I trained, and which is mentioned in DuVernay’s series as using a technique that ‘has been universally rejected’ (episode 4), has attempted to sue DuVernay and Netflix for defamation. Although it is ‘unclear exactly how defamation law might cover this fictionalized dialogue’ (Levin, 2019), the lawsuit underlines a belief in the power of fiction to influence reality.


[1] Minors and those with lower IQs are particularly at risk of being coerced (Innocence Project, 2020). Although African Americans make up only 13% of the American population, they constitute the majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated (Gross, Possley and Stephens, 2017).

[2] In March 2020, a district court dismissed the interrogation firm's lawsuit.


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