This documentary opened my eyes to a world full of wrongful convictions and really got me thinking about the foundations of law and our juridical system. If innocent people are being thrown in jail, then what makes us safe? Philosophy of law can help us understand why we forever may be condemned to uphold a flawed government system.
Should we be fearful?
What’s your biggest fear? I have contemplated this question many times, and when asking others it also seems trivial. Heights, water, and various animal encounters are usually given as responses, but the most common answer I seem to come across is death - the final abyss of non-existence we all must eventually face. Is death something we should really be afraid of?
The idea of not being alive to witness the world anymore is generally a disturbing and unsettling one. But, as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus reassured us, "death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist”. In other words, we shouldn’t worry about death because we won’t know about it once we do finally kick the bucket!
So, we’re all going to die, and we should face up to this ill-fated eventuality without anxiety. What else is left to fear? Well after watching several episodes of Netflix’s The Confession Tapes (2017), a shocking documentary series revealing miscarriages of justice across the pond, I realised that a confiscation of freedom – prison – is potentially even more frightening, as your life is left restricted, dictated, and ultimately destroyed. And if you have done nothing wrong in the first place to deserve it, the devastation is tenfold.
I’ve not been to prison, but I assume it’s a terrifying place. As if the long drowned out days in confinement aren't enough, you have the delinquent prison foe to contend with. But knowing that your whole life will consist of this (assuming you are imprisoned for life), whilst knowing that this breach of freedom was wrongly implemented by sheer misfortune (or shoddy police work), is certainly soul-destroying. The very thought of knowing you are innocent, yet having the highest order in the land – our government, law enforcement, and juridical system - fail you so tremendously is enough to force anyone to re-evaluate their faith and trust in anything.
I previously had confidence that municipal authorities had progressed and developed throughout the centuries to provide us with the best ethical system of individual rights, freedom, and protection. So why are innocent people going to jail for crimes they didn't commit? The Confession Tapes reveals the answer to be quite simple. The criminal justice system is only as good as law enforcement is fair, or as lawyers are skilled, or as jurors are open-minded. Even then, it is a human endeavour – we’re not always going to get it right.
What really sets this series apart from other crime documentaries is the notion of false confession. Why would anybody confess to a crime they didn’t commit? This depends on which story/episode you watch. Unethical police practice is the short answer, with suspects beings coerced into either believing they committed the crime, or believing that not confessing will result in a worse outcome.
Episode reviews (spoilers alert)
The episode A Public Apology explores the murder of Teresa Haught in 1997, in which the police immediately set their sights on her boyfriend as the culprit. Wesley Myers is hardly the sharpest tool in the shed, but he seems candid and genuine. No evidence ties Myers to the crime, but the unfortunate roller coaster relationship him and Teresa had, fuelled with alcohol and partying, is essentially what puts him in the frame. The police interrogate Myers relentlessly, without a lawyer, for numerous hours. This wears him down to a vulnerable state, and Myers begins to even question himself after police suggest he could have blacked out and committed the murder, despite him having no recollection or intention of ever killing her.
What strikes me as most unethical is the lie Myers is told by police – that physical hair and blood evidence exists and links him to the crime. It doesn’t, but upon hearing this Myers thinks he has to have done it. The result – a false confession. He apologises for committing the murder which essentially lands him behind bars. A confused Myers spends years in prison, until DNA evidence reveals he is innocent 15 years later. Even then, he is advised to plead guilty at his retrial so he is released under ‘time served’. The end of the episode is especially sad when Myers reveals that the things he missed most were simple – fishing, the sound of a creek, and cooking good food. Although now a free man, he states he is “very tired” after the whole ordeal.
Another harrowing episode is True East. A Muslim boy’s family is murdered, and the key suspects are immediately the boy, Atif Ray, and his best friend, Sebastian Burns. I had to chuckle at the start when the police suspect the two young teenagers of murder because of their studious fondness of the pessimistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, apparently proving they have similar nihilistic tendencies. But it becomes more serious when Canadian police adopt a controversial (and now illegal) method and lure the two suspects into believing they befriend some well-respected criminals, who are actually police actors, all in an attempt to elicit a confession.
After many months of fake encounters with fake gangsters, the suspects are eventually led to believe that DNA evidence is suddenly held by the police (which it isn’t) proving they are killers, and that the criminals can destroy this police evidence if they confess to them the murders. They confess, and shockingly this confusing plot holds up in court. The problem is, evidently, that if you believe the government have fake evidence against you, you might do just about anything to save your own skin, including falsely confess a murder to mobsters. The lines are clearly blurred between genuine and false confession, nevertheless, there are detrimental consequences for Ray and Burns.
Sebastian Burns & Atif Ray
Other episodes include Down River, which really had me stumped as to whether the culprit Lawrence Delisle intentionally drives his family into a river or simply experiences a leg cramp, as he claims. His interrogation by police is compared with hypnotism, with questionable psychological techniques being used to grill the suspect and lead him to what some think was a nervous breakdown during interview, prompting a false confession. Trial by Fire is another interesting episode in which I struggled to reach my own verdict. Many of the stories are told in an unbiased light, leaving the audience to make up their own minds on whether the suspects are guilty or innocent. Some remain a mystery, whilst others seem starkly obvious that justice has been misplaced.
The philosophy bit
Undoubtedly, there are many of you wondering how this can even happen. We might even begin to question authority itself – to what extent can we trust those in charge of law and order? The foundations of authority are well explored and defended in the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ pioneering work Leviathan (1651), which establishes why law exists in the first place. This is essential into understanding more about why miscarriages of justice occur.
Hobbes recognised that a state of nature without authority would be horrific, as similarly depicted in The Purge (2013-) films. Chaos would ensue, violence would dominate, and trust between people would become impossible. Life, as Hobbes put it, would be “nasty, brutish, and short”. The reason why law has ensued is because as rational thinking beings we recognise that the best way for people to survive and society to flourish is through cooperation. Law enforcement is necessary to maintain mandatory compliance from everyone, and Hobbes felt that many of us would stray if this was not the case. These ideologies really embody the founding principles of legislation, otherwise known as social contract theory. We sacrifice some of our own freedom (by following the law) in exchange for protection against malevolence; this is mutually beneficial for everyone and helps the world run smoothly.
But what if those in power are wrong, bias, corrupt, or just plain evil? Hobbes defended any given authority in charge, even if flawed, stating “humane affairs cannot be without some inconvenience”. We should put up and shut up, simply because we are condemned to be human and should respect authority for the sake of authority. In some countries, there is a complete lack of trust between citizens and government. In other places, scepticism remains.
Perhaps the fact that only 5% of US inmates are innocent is a good thing (figures according to The Innocent Project); in Britain it is considerably less. We can only hope that these unfortunate souls who have felt the brunt of injustice have not done so in vain, and have helped us realise that we must continually strive for development and progression, all the way from our court rooms to everyday policing. But if Hobbes is right, the world will forever remain a dangerous place because we are all just human. As the great philosopher Plato insinuated in Republic, who will police the police?