Tuesday, May 15, 2012
The Crime Story That's Not on TV
This summer TNT will air the final episodes of its police procedural The Closer, and the series will ease into perpetual syndication. Linda and I have been faithful viewers from the beginning, and I’ve enjoyed it, though less for the stories than for the ensemble of performers who make up a congenial major-crimes unit.
If you’ve never seen it, The Closer features Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Johnson, head of the aforementioned unit, who is a wizard at extracting confessions in order to close a case with an arrest. In more than one episode, she has said, as she goes in to break down an unwary perp, “There’s nothing like a confession.”
In crime fiction, that’s absolutely true, and the tradition goes back nearly a century, to the early British murder mysteries where the detective calls all the suspects together, explains how the crime was committed, and gets the guilty party to confess — or at any rate, to kill himself, attempt to escape, or otherwise behave guiltily.
Not so much in real life, however. A couple of months ago The New York Times had a lengthy article on convictions that had been overturned or called into doubt by subsequent DNA evidence, and well into it, the reader came across the statistic that in nearly one out of five such cases handled by the Innocence Project, the innocent person had confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.
Many of the innocent parties were not exactly what you would call good citizens. They had a low social status and a history of (usually nonviolent) crime that called police attention to them in the first place. Once pulled in, past memories of police encounters made them behave suspiciously, and led police to try to break down their protestations of innocence.
One such suspect said he confessed to get a grueling interrogation over with, figuring the police would quickly realize he wasn’t the killer and let him go. Instead, confession in hand, they wrapped up the investigation and didn’t look into anything else that might muddy their case. The prosecutor didn’t bother to run DNA tests, and an incompetent defense attorney didn’t insist on them. Believing in the fairness and competence of law enforcement cost the man years in prison and very nearly his life.
Stories like this are more common than we’d like to believe, yet we almost never see them on TV or in the movies. We’re much more likely to see a film or show about a guilty creep set free by a bleeding-heart judge over a “technicality.” That certainly happens, but not to the degree it’s depicted in popular entertainment.
Actually, the whole question of how TV and movies warp our understanding of crime and affect social policy is probably something you don’t want to think about if you have a queasy stomach. I love crime shows as much as the next guy, but they would leave you thinking that this country is full of cunning, vicious psychopaths preying on innocent people whose cars break down or who otherwise happen to get in their way.
The reality is that today’s crime rates are low by any long-term standard of measurement and that if you’re the victim of a violent crime, it’s probably at the hands of someone you know. The additional reality is that hardly any criminals are shrewd and calculating. As one of our local judges, a former prosecutor, likes to say, “If they weren’t dumb, we wouldn’t catch ‘em.” If they weren’t dumb, they wouldn’t confess, either, so it would be a grave mistake to take such a confession as the last word.