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May 19, 2006



That's an interesting idea. Have these commonalities that you mentioned been empirically validated as being unique to taped confessions? My experience with this is very limited, but I imagine that factors such as the length of the police interrogation and the related stress involved, work to make the suspect less aware of a camera.


I've seen about a dozen filmed confessions, and in all of them there is significant "play" to the camera. It is not clear to me (yet) the differences in length of interrogation as between the confessions. (I haven't been able to collect all the facts of the investigations on every one of the confessions yet.) And so I can't yet evaluate if they are all similar in how long the interrogations were going on before the camera was turned on. And, I am not sure how to compare the "performative quality" of these filmed confessions with confessions that are unfilmed, unless we are only comparing the spoken rhetoric (and not the body language, film image, etc.). That would be another project all together. To be sure, there are some good investigations of the rhetorical structure of spoken confessions (Peter Brooks of this blog has a fabulous book, Troubling Confessions on this topic). I am mostly interested in how it appears the film affects our interpretation of the confession (or our interpretation of its value in the legal system). My comparison is between filmed confessions and other types of films, not filmed confessions and unfilmed confessions, although perhaps I should also look into that.


I am interested in your opinion on whether the way film influences the interpretation of confessions varies depending on the audience and purpose for which the film is being exhibited. (Sorry for the sentence construction!) As I understand the taped confession, the main (or at least first) audience is the judge. The video is intended to demonstrate a lack of coercion, not (necessarily) for its persuasive bearing on the guilt/innocence question. In this respect, is there “play” to the camera by the police as well as by the suspect? (Am I incorrect in assuming that the “play referenced in your post was on the part of the suspect?)

When the confession is played for the jury (does this happen often?), it has bearing on the guilt/innocence question, and the prosecution wants it (and the defendant, ironically) to appear as persuasive as possible in the even that the defendant later recants. But highly persuasive confessions (for the substantive question and the jury) may be least likely in cases where it is most necessary to videotape the confession in order to convince the judge that it was not coerced – where the suspect is intelligent, articulate, of age, etc. – and there may be an inverse relationship between the videotape’s value at various stages of the proceeding. Is there evidence that these two audiences interpret the same confession in different ways, given their different experiences, purposes, and institutional roles?


These are good questions. As to the first -- do police "play" to the camera -- I would say yes. But perhaps not in the way you are thinking. The film is said to encourage police to "behave" (tone down coercive tactics) because the film will be seen by those who will judge the coerciveness of the interrogation (judges, for the most part). Insofar as this "film effect" works, police "perform" by changing their manner because of the film. I am not sure whether this translates to a less coercive environment, however. There is, of course, much to the environment that is not seen on film but is certainly experienced by both interrogator and defendant.

It is not often (that I have found) that the confession is played for the jury by the defense in order to prove innocence or coercion. The exception is when the film is "incomplete" (has gaps) and the defendant wants to argue that what happened during the gaps in the film is crucial to understanding his state of mind during the interrogation and the truthfulness of his statements. When a filmed confession is introduced at trial, it is often "renarrativized" by the defense attorney to mean exactly the opposite of what it seems to mean. The Bernhard Goetz confession is a classic example of this. There, defense attorney Slotnik successfully convinces the jury that most of Goetz's confession should be believed (he was in reasonable fear of his life) but that the crucial statement about how he returned to shoot the already wounded men again was a fabrication. This is evidence of an answer to your second question: the confession can mean different things (even contradictory things) at different points of the legal adjudication process.

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Chief Justice Robert's decision for the unanimous Court in in the law school/military recruiting

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