“Scenes of a Crime” subject Adrian Thomas found not guilty in retrial

MSNBC Documentaries, 6/24/14, 4:15 PM ET

What might lead an innocent man confess to something he didn’t do?

“Scenes of a Crime” explores a 10-hour interrogation that resulted in Adrian Thomas’s false confession.

Adrian Thomas is now a free man.

On June 12, Thomas was acquitted of killing his infant son after the New York State Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for him, citing among other reasons “highly coercive” techniques used by police during his interrogation. In 2009, Thomas was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Thomas is the subject of the award-winning documentary “Scenes of a Crime”, broadcast nationally for the first time on MSNBC in December 2012. The New Box Productions film produced by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh investigates Thomas’s false confession and includes interviews with detectives, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors and Thomas himself.

Central to Thomas’s 2009 conviction was a videotaped admission to killing his son, Matthew Thomas—a confession that came nine and a half hours into a 10-hour interrogation. But in February, New York’s highest court ruled the psychological pressure placed on Thomas invalidated the confession, and it should not have been used as evidence.

For most of the interrogation, Thomas maintains he did not harm the child. But police insist the child must have been treated violently, telling Thomas that if he did not accidentally hurt Matthew, then his wife must have. Thomas says that “if it comes down to it” he would “take the fall for my wife.”  His wife was never accused.

“Not one single word, not one single action was originated by Adrian,” Hadaegh explained. “Everything he said, everything he reenacted was said to him by the detective in the room.”

Detectives repeatedly tell Thomas that explaining how he’d caused Matthew’s head injuries could save the child’s life—even though they knew he was already brain-dead. They ask Thomas to act out throwing the child down on the bed.

“You better find that memory right now, Adrian,” Sergeant Adam Mason says during the interrogation. “You’ve got to find that memory. This is important for your son’s life, man.”

During the retrial, forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Sikirica, who performed Matthew’s autopsy, told the jury the infant died of head trauma. But defense attorney Stephen Coffey argued Sikirica was wrong. Coffey brought in medical experts including neuropathologist Dr. Jan Leestma, who testified that Matthew died of septic shock due to a bacterial infection. Child abuse expert and pediatric neurologist Dr. Patrick Barnes also testified for the defense, telling jurors medical records he reviewed showed the four-month-old died of infection—though he said “possible trauma” needed to be included on the list of possibilities “because it is mandatory.”

The jury found Thomas not guilty after seven hours of deliberations over two days.

“Scenes of a Crime” producers said the documentary’s broadcast helped bring Thomas’s case to national attention, garnering legal support.

“We’re proud the documentary played an important role in gathering attention and support for Adrian’s case, which was eventually embraced by the Innocence Project, Center on Wrongful Convictions, and many other justice reform groups,” they said. 

Babcock said false confessions in the United States are much more frequent than most people realize.

According to the Innocence Project, in about 30 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, “defendants made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials or pled guilty.”

“The Adrian Thomas case is far from unique. The only unique thing about Adrian Thomas’s case is that the process was richly documented,” Babcock said. “I think that the film played an essential role in creating awareness about this particular case and its value as a case study of how interrogation techniques can draw forward false confessions.”

Thomas was reunited with his family June 15 in South Georgia after spending nearly six years in prison and jail. Babcock and Hadaegh spoke with him shortly after his release.

“He says it’s unreal, he says he’s taking it moment by moment, and he says he’s just so grateful for the support that gathered around his case,” Babcock said.

Watch “Scenes of a Crime” Thursday, July 3rd at 10 p.m. ET on msnbc.

"Scenes of a Crime" subject Adrian Thomas found not guilty in retrial