Another day in the American criminal justice system

Today’s question is: When is a confession not a confession? Answer: When it’s coerced from a suspect under extreme pressure and threat of bodily harm.

There are complex theories behind witness interrogation, it’s kind of a cop art. The purpose of applying these complex physical and psychological persuasion techniques is to get information, or better yet, a confession. Case closed, another promotion for the cops and society rests easy that night knowing justice has been served. It saves a lot of time and difficult detective work.

Of course not all suspects are tortured and not all justice professionals are bad. But here’s proof that many innocent people have served prison time after “confessing” under pressure. The Miranda rights (right to remain silent, right to an attorney etc.) were laid out by the Supreme Court to help, and they can – if the suspect isn’t coerced into waiving those rights, as commonly happen.

In May of 2000, after being beaten and threatened, 15-year-old Brenton Butler signed a document stating that he shot a tourist during a robbery. All evidence gathered by the defense pointed to his innocence. His murder trial is the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary “Murder on A Sunday Morning.”

Butler’s ordeal started one Sunday morning, May 7, 2000, when a 60-something tourist is shot in the face during a robbery outside a Jacksonville, Fla., motel room. The suspect: a young black male in a T-shirt and shorts.

Brenton Butler, a black male in a T-shirt and shorts, happens to walk by the crime scene an hour later on the way to fill out a job application. The cops take him into custody. Explaining why, one cop says, “We said, look, there’s a black male over there.”

The victim’s husband positively ID’s Butler as the killer from 50 feet away. All that’s needed next is a confession. Butler is interrogated without an attorney, his parents or hardly a clue as to what is going on. A Detective Glover, who obtained his promotion to detective the same year his father was promoted to sheriff, takes Butler on a walk into the woods where they hope to find the murder weapon. Butler says Glover hit him three times before he signed the confession statement. Glover denies this, but photographs of Butler’s injuries show differently.

Public defenders Patrick McGuiness and Ann Finnel believe Butler is innocent and work hard to prove it. They do the detective work the detectives never did, and build a strong defense. As the viewer learns of the evidence, it’s tough not to agree and truly hope the defense will be strong enough.

The film intersperses extensive courtroom footage with McGuinness’ and Finnel’s investigation. The pace of the film is fairly slow. The editing is good but there’s minimal editing for dramatic effect and no artistic frills. It’s a straightforward film focused on telling this story. Large portions of testimonies and courtroom proceedings are heard. The film sticks to the trial process, and impressively, is able to cover the entire process from beginning to end.

As slow as the film is in places, the need to know the verdict keeps you riveted. It becomes obvious that Butler has fallen victim to racial profiling and lazy police work. The victim’s husband, Mr. Stevens, although grieving and meaning well, seems focused on getting any young black male in jail. The detectives outright lie to the jury, and all Butler’s working-class family can do is pray, give him hope through a plastic window and cry.

The filmmakers catch it all, and do a decent job of keeping the viewer on the edge almost as much as the courtroom was while awaiting the juries’ final verdict.