A true-crime documentary of invigorating analytical clarity and evenhandedness, Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock’s Scenes of a Crime takes up the case of Adrian Thomas, an overweight, unemployed African-American father of seven who in 2008 was put through nearly 10 hours of police interrogation about the life-threatening condition (and eventual death) of his four-month-old son Matthew. Thanks to an initial hospital doctor stating that Matthew had been “murdered” due to car crash-grade head trauma that could only have been caused by violent shaking and bludgeoning, two Troy, New York police detectives put Adrian through the ringer, shutting him up in a cramped room and hammering him with accusations, possible scenarios, and tactics—many of them modeled after “The Reid Technique,” an instructional video from which the directors repeatedly show clips—that sought to elicit a confession through manipulations and lies. Those interrogation videos formed the brunt of the prosecution’s eventual case, and they also dominate Scenes of a Crime, which cannily presents this central footage in varying contexts as a means of calling into question how truth is ascertained, and what myriad forces play into the interpretation of facts.
While Hadaegh and Babcock begin by working from the perspective of the interrogating cops (who, like virtually everyone else involved in the case, is extensively interviewed on camera), their film is an impressive piece of reportage free of overt or pushy bias, with equal time granted to Adrian’s defense team. That involved experts who argued that the accused’s confession was coerced—a contention not allowed to be made at trial, for dubious reasons—and that baby Matthew died not from trauma (later evaluations proved that the child had suffered no broken bones or skull fractures), but from fatal sepsis. While these alternative explanations are convincing, it’s the videos themselves that prove most tantalizing, radiating an almost Zapruder-film mystery, as Adrian’s coldness for much of the discussions suggests one thing, while the cops’ increasingly conniving, shady techniques and bullying point to a far different—and ultimately more persuasive—analysis of the evidence. Using graphics and text in a refreshing functionality-over-gimmickry manner, Scenes of a Crime shrewdly never advances its own POV, instead trusting its audience to thoughtfully dissect and decipher the material at hand—a duty clearly neglected by at least one of the case’s jurors, who in claiming that Adrian just “looked guilty,” and that his unemployment resulted from him simply looking “lazy,” exposes a latent racism that also seems to have led Adrian to his fateful circumstances.