That status is only further solidified by The Confession Tapes, the streaming service’s latest foray into some of America’s most haunting recent homicide mysteries. Unlike its predecessors, creator/director Kelly Loudenberg’s gripping series (available now) does not assume a serialized format; except for its two-part opener, each of its episodes is a stand-alone story. However, what it does share with those prior documentary hits is a focus on murders that, upon closer inspection, seem to have been solved in erroneous ways—in this case, via false confessions.
That anyone would actually admit to a crime they didn’t commit—to police, and on the record—is a notion that naturally inspires more than a bit of skepticism. No matter the situation of the individual being questioned, or the pressure placed upon them by outside forces, the idea that someone would throw away their life over something they had nothing to do with—and which may have been a tragedy for them as well—seems so implausible that to convince people that such a thing has occurred becomes an immediate uphill battle.
Yet in six stories told over the course of seven episodes, each bolstered by copious footage of the police interrogations that led individuals to point the fingers at themselves (thus earning them life sentences behind bars), The Confession Tapes makes a cogent, compelling argument that, under the right circumstances, a declaration of guilt isn’t worth more than the videotape on which it’s recorded.
“Say it and be done with it,” an investigator tells Buddy Woodall—a man thought to have been involved with the execution of his uncle and another man—in Episode 6 (“The Labor Day Murders”) of The Confession Tapes. It’s a plea found, in one form or another, in all of the cases addressed by Loudenberg’s show.
The pattern quickly becomes obvious: Law enforcement officials decide, early on, upon their main suspects; home in on them at the expense of exhaustively following up other leads and theories; and then psychologically wear them down through 5-10 hour interrogations.
In those marathon sessions, detectives and polygraph experts employ all sorts of mind games designed to elicit an “I did it.” They present possible scenarios for how the crimes may have played out, and repeat them ad nauseam. They claim that they have (non-existent) evidence implicating the accused. They intimate that the crimes may have been committed in a subconscious-driven dream state, thus making the “killers” unaware of their own actions. And they depict themselves as their targets’ only hope for a lighter sentence, or at least for relief from moral anguish—and, of course, from the misery of the interrogations themselves.
The Confession Tapes’ various tales feature recordings of men and women denying responsibility for hours on end, only to eventually succumb to the narratives fed to them by cops. That, in almost every instance, there’s no corroborating evidence to back up these statements—save for circumstantial tidbits that hardly rise to a “reasonable doubt” standard—means that these people have been put away for crimes based solely on their own admissions. It’s a portrait of dubious law enforcement methods resulting in legal railroading, and one whose outrageousness is amplified by the fact that, after the verdict, there’s very little recourse to be undertaken on behalf of the convicted.
Loudenberg’s first two episodes (“True East”) concentrate on Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns, two friends from Bellevue, Washington, who were pinned for the 1994 slaughter of Atif’s father, mother, and mentally disabled sister. Though they had strong alibis and little motive, they found themselves in the crosshairs of both domestic police and—because Atif and Sebastian were both Canadian citizens—the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The latter elicited a confession from the duo after executing a ruse known as “Mr. Big”—in which undercover agents pretended to be gangsters eager to help the suspects—that’s illegal here in the States (and now also in Canada, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling). In surreptitious tapings of Sebastian and Atif’s meetings with these faux-mobsters, we see the teens struggle mightily to concoct lucid admissions. Meanwhile, law enforcement diligently ignores a conflicting, far-from-unbelievable theory: The Rafay clan was assassinated by a terrorist Muslim group that disliked Dr. Rafay’s public proclamations of his belief that mosques were having members pray toward Mecca in the wrong direction.
A similar picture emerges in later episodes, which tackle a man who confesses to setting his girlfriend on fire in a bar while black-out drunk; a mother who agrees that she burned her daughter alive during a waking dream; a group of young African-African men coaxed into impugning each other for a heinous rape-murder that was probably committed by a local sadist; and a father who comes to believe that a “demon” drove him to drive his car into a Detroit-area river, killing his four children, rather than it being the result of an automotive malfunction. The Confession Tapes’ horror stories are distinct, and yet tethered together by the same threads: poor, minimally educated individuals; little to no evidence to support confessions; competing hypotheses that are largely discarded by investigators and prosecutors; multi-hour interrogations conducted without a lawyer present, in which the accused eventually succumb to rigorous pressure to say what police want to hear; and, ultimately, guilty verdicts.
To recount these cases, Loudenberg marries her grainy VHS confession tapes to archival footage, new interviews with primary players and evocative dramatic imagery (a tour through a crime-scene garage, close-ups of broken glass, a bloody dollar bill, and a polygraph machine scribbling lines on a piece of paper). It’s a style that diligently follows the Errol Morris book of true-crime filmmaking, and yet its lack of formal adventurousness is offset by the precision of the director’s technique, as well as by an overarching air of despair. Even though it raises as many questions as it provides definitive answers—and, in one account, falters a bit in suggesting a person’s innocence—The Confession Tapes is a bracing compendium of injustices, at once indignant over the way in which these subjects were manipulated into damning themselves, and sorrowful over their subsequent powerlessness to right a clear wrong.