Unbelievable — Anatomy of a doubt

I first heard about the Netflix mini-series 𝙐𝙣𝙗𝙚𝙡𝙞𝙚𝙫𝙖𝙗𝙡𝙚 from a blog post last year and then I noticed that it got nominated for (and won) a bunch of awards including the Primetime Emmy Awards. When I read that it was based on a true story, I decided to spend the time watching at least one episode. Once I started the first episode, I couldn’t stop. It was so engaging that I didn’t sleep until I finished all 8 episodes. It was a phenomenal story and an important story for our zeitgeist. The mini-series was based on a 2015 Pulitzer prize-winning news article “An unbelievable story of rape” about a series of rapes in Washington and Colorado states that occurred during 2008–2011. The mini-series (8 episodes in total) runs two parallel storylines, one in 2008 and another in 2011. The 2011 plotline focuses on the thrilling drama that boasts thoughtful cops, shady cops, reverent look at the victims, forensic details, prejudices, imagination leaps that don’t sound ‘Hollywood-ian’, and some cathartic justice at the end of it all. In other words, all the auguries of a well-crafted police procedural that is sure to win your heart. To understand how a serial rapist went without being caught for years, we need to start at ground zero, i.e. 2008, and understand why the first case wasn’t investigated as emphatically as the other cases that eventually exposed him. The first reported case was that of a 16-year-old girl from Lynnwood, WA. Her apartment was invaded and she was sexually violated but her case was dismissed by the police as a made-up story after a few interrogations, and they even had the audacity to implicate her in a criminal case for false reporting. To understand what could’ve happened, we need to understand how police interrogations work.

The popularity of cop shows and movies perpetuates a myth that we know what to expect when the police interview any of us. Watching the numerous cop shows on TV does nothing to prepare us for a real interrogation with cops. In most of the police dramas on TV or movies, we see the police read “Miranda rights” to their suspects, but do you think anyone can remember all that while being arrested? The cop dramas have conditioned us to think that the antics of the rogue cops (read “heroes”) are par for the course because these TV shows predominantly portray culpable perpetrators as the interviewees.

Police interrogators in the USA mostly employ a commercially available program called the 𝗥𝗲𝗶𝗱 𝘁𝗲𝗰𝗵𝗻𝗶𝗾𝘂𝗲 and don’t seem to be giving it up even in the face of multiple studies proving that the technique results in a high rate of false confessions. The major parts of the technique involve fact analysis, behavior analysis, and a nine-step process of interrogation. The interrogation is mostly an accusatory process where the police either try to confuse the suspect/interviewee or try to elicit information by either lying or “fact-checking”. Let me explain: the police might lie to you and say, they found a knife with your fingerprints on it and see what you’ll do with that information. Their “watertight” logic goes, “Well, an innocent person would stubbornly oppose that statement”, but we all know how anyone responds to authorities (especially someone like police) when being questioned under duress. Though many states including California are trying to adopt the so-called “fox hunter rationale” to ban the use of “deceit” by the police in the interrogation process, other states haven’t caught up yet.

Apart from this so-called “fact analysis” that involves “cross-checking” the story of the interviewee, my main problem is with the behavior analysis. Despite what everyone thinks, the police are human and beholden to the same human frailties that we all share. Police do not possess superpowers that can detect a lie and a falsehood, even after many years of experience. We all have a mental model, and when that doesn’t fit with someone’s behavior, it’s perceived as a falsehood or lie or downright guilt. These simple heuristics might be acceptable when dealing with a used car salesman, but not in the police business. The prisons are full of people who were forced to falsely confess based on “a feeling” a cop had. Evident by what’s happening in the country, the graveyards are full of people who were perceived to be a threat by police because they didn’t fit the cop’s idea of what a model citizen should look and act like. Malcolm Gladwell wrote extensively about this in his book 𝘛𝘢𝘭𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘰 𝘚𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳𝘴 in which he quotes the case of Amanda Knox who was falsely imprisoned in Italy for four years on a murder charge because the police thought they saw guilt in her eyes. Gladwell also explains how time and again, the so-called experts like cops, judges, FBI agents, spies all fail at detecting falsehood or lies. For the leitmotif of police interrogation, we have the unassailable confidence that police officers have in their capacity to judge someone’s character or their “uncanny” ability to spot a lie. Based on numerous studies, that “acuity” turns out to be false. The bottom line, the police are far from mind readers.

So, what’s the solution to this maddening problem? Countries like the UK have introduced a program called 𝗣𝗘𝗔𝗖𝗘 that doesn’t target confession as the goal of an interview rather a process of finding facts by probing a suspect’s account and not making behavior analysis judgments. In other words, 𝗣𝗘𝗔𝗖𝗘 avoids what’s known as the 𝗳𝗿𝗮𝗺𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗲𝗳𝗳𝗲𝗰𝘁 (allowing yourself to be unduly influenced by context and delivery). This model helped UK police at all levels to avoid miscarriages, and it delivers better justice. Officers are trained to concentrate on probing a suspect’s account, seeking to confirm or negate by comparison with other known information. I, personally, had come into contact with the police in India and the USA as a victim, and both times, I chose to forgo registering a complaint to avoid future harassment/hassle. I can attest to the fact that getting involved in the justice system (acrimonious or not) is like stepping through the looking glass. In my 20s, I was a victim of a major hit-and-run accident in India, and when the police came to take my statement in the hospital, I understood they weren’t there to catch the perpetrator, but rather “make a deal” to close the case. In my stupefied state, I chose not to put my family through the wringer of the justice system and gave them the statement they wanted. Needless to say, that’s not justice, I came this close to losing my life that day and the driver who hit me was never identified. This is not to say cops are bad or unscrupulous, rather we need better training and techniques when it comes to interviews, especially not to dangle confession as the end game for cops. When I was discussing this with my daughter, she said we probably need a class in high school on how to deal with law enforcement.

One of the vociferous advocates against police interrogation coercion is Saul Kassin of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of multiple books on the subject. In a 1996 study conducted by Saul Kassin and Katherine Kiechel, sixty-nine percent of people signed a confession after being falsely accused of causing a computer program to crash with loss of data. The reason: a person of authority is telling them that they did it and falsely claimed that they had an eye-witness. We are not talking about giving them the third-degree or even simulating conditions such as we see in police interrogations. Research in neuroscience tells us that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in problem-solving, regulation of emotion, evaluation of risk and reward) isn’t fully developed until around age 25. This has an impact on how someone would deal with hours of intense interrogation, how they would respond to false evidence, and what they would think if authority figures repeatedly told them that reality didn’t match their own memories. Multiple scholarly studies also have proven that juveniles, teenagers, and the mentally unstable can be unduly influenced by persons of authority, and prone to provide false confessions to something they may or may not have done. If this sounds like hyperbole, consider the well-documented case of Central Park five (a group of teenage boys who falsely confessed to the rape of a jogger in 1989), one of the teenagers had his parents in the room for his interrogation. The boy confessed after 20 hours of interrogation when his father suggested he just tell the cops what they wanted to hear so the family could go home. The shimmering icing on this moldering cake is the number of sham “deals” offered by the overworked prosecutors who force the suspect to confess to a lesser crime instead of going to trial. If you are asking, why would these poor folk succumb to this self-sabotage? Faced with an uncertain trial date and the looming threats of a longer sentence, they genuflect to the authorities and accept their fates. By looking closely at the judiciary system, these facts and stats give us the chills, but that’s just the tip of the real iceberg, and the number of true-crime shows, podcasts, and movies made based on these innocent people is a testament to it.

The series’s 2008 narrative takes us through the ordeal of a young girl, Marie, who was in and out of foster homes all her life. After her original statement about her rape, based on her “detached behavior” her foster mother suggests to the police that may be Marie made it up an attention-seeking attempt, thus undermining Marie’s entire account. She also says she herself has been a victim of sexual assault when she was young and she knows how it is but Marie’s behavior doesn’t “look” like a rape victim. This anchoring bias influences the police detectives and inconsistencies in Marie’s statement also fuels their lingering doubts, and they “conclude” that Marie was making the whole ludicrous thing up. In their subsequent interviews, the cops accost and admonish her, and an exasperated Marie is forced to sign a confession, and then the case is closed. To add insult to the injury, Marie is charged with “false reporting” and faces jail time. In Marie’s case, the system not only falters but fails her completely. The loss of her job, housing, friends, the hate she receives on social media, TV, and press breaks her spirit and leaves her with an indelible trauma. She is forced to live with the trauma of being raped and bear the cross of false accusations as well. She loses not only her agency but her faith in humanity and attempts suicide, but starts rebuilding her life after meeting a kind therapist who believes in her story. As one lawyer puts it “When you are a victim of a burglary, nobody questions the veracity of your claim, but why do they when you report a rape?”

Marie is finally vindicated when the aforementioned 2011 case finds evidence of her rape (the rapist keeps photo evidence as souvenirs) by the serial rapist when he is arrested and sentenced. The rapist mostly targeted single women who lived on and off-campus, but the rape victims don’t fit any pattern because they range from 16-year teenagers to 72-year-old grandmas of all colors and races. So obviously, you can hear yourself say how many more Marie’s are out there? This is not to say there are no false reports or false accusations, but looking at the statistics just on-campus rapes (25% of college women report they survived a rape or rape attempt), it’s hard to ignore the numbers and say they were all making it up. The fear of 𝘳𝘦𝘴 𝘪𝘱𝘴𝘢 𝘭𝘰𝘲𝘶𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘳 (Latin for ‘the thing speaks for itself’. Under this legal doctrine, a university might be found responsible for not providing a safe environment if a student is raped) makes the campus security and the colleges sweep these allegations under the rug without due process. In the past when others confided me in about their experience with sexual assault, I was slow on the uptake because of my existing mental models. I would like to think I’ve grown since then and a show like 𝙐𝙣𝙗𝙚𝙡𝙞𝙚𝙫𝙖𝙗𝙡𝙚 helps in the process. I was tearing up multiple times while watching Marie’s struggles but also cheering when the investigation races forward. The series is well designed to juxtapose Marie’s story with the commendable efforts of two Colorado cops who put all the rape cases together to finally catch the perpetrator and bring him to justice. Maybe because the cops are both females, or the way their personalities are dealt with, we can see their anguish, their doubts, their rigor, their commitment, and hard work that breathes new hope into our faith in the system.

When the series picks up the narrative thread in 2011, we can see that the new investigations are antithetical to the 2008 instance. The cops treat victims with more compassion and respect, they do thorough forensic work and most importantly they care. This plot follows a standard crime-solving template albeit seeped in reality so it’s very enjoyable and exciting to watch the cops chase the bad guys. The throughline we see running through these investigations exposes a fundamental gap in policing in the USA. Unlike countries like the UK or even India, the police system is fragmented in the USA, and they don’t conform to a country-wide hierarchy. The police departments do not share detailed case information even within the same state or county. The FBI’s national VICAP database is supposed to be a bridge to fill that gap but the information that gets entered into VICAP is purely voluntary and often spotty. Add to this, the modalities followed by the police and prosecutors vary from state to state. Despite these headwinds, in what amounts to pure luck, the cops working on distinct cases were able to muster a team together to compare notes and ultimately triumph. Stories and instances like these should act as wake-up calls for better data collection, collaboration to stop violent perpetrators in their tracks.

The series is created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon. The single-camera format lends itself to slow-burning mise en scène moments that rely less on quick cuts but longer shots. This focuses our attention on storytelling rather than excitement. The natural lighting, well-balanced background score all give the series a documentary effect but that’s to be expected from a true-crime drama. The production design keeps in mind little details like using appropriate levels of gadgetry commensurate with the time period, police/FBI procedures, and most importantly the (social)media impact. The impressive cast includes veterans like Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever as Marie. The acting, directing, and most importantly writing are all top-notch and keeps you engaged throughout this thought-provoking and gripping series.

This is a well-made series that hits all the right notes in eliciting emotions, outrage, helplessness, excitement. Though in a final moment of abreaction, when we hear the rapist derisively talk about how he was not scrutinized thoroughly the first time (the 2008 Marie’s case) and how that gave him the confidence to continue his raping spree across states tears at your heart. We, along with the cops, are left to wonder how one instance of injustice (laced by the toxic police interviews) led to the chaos and heartache of more than 30 women in 3 years. To put it simply, if the original cops hadn’t dropped the ball so spectacularly, things might have been different. More than the rapist’s comeuppance, as Marie says in the series, knowing that there are people out there who care for you, who believe your story gives you the strength to go on.

What we need from cops in these cases is not prescience, but collaboration. We need the cops not to be mentalists or telepaths, but to be thorough. We are not looking for utopia but a fair justice system, for 𝙟𝙪𝙨𝙩, is the bedrock of justice.

Written On May 10, 2021

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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