True Crime 7-parter The Confession Tapes asks serious questions of police tactics in an intriguing look into the psychology of interrogations and confessions. 

True Crime has evolved into a bona fide genre of its own right. Since the likes of The Jinx, The Keepers and Making a Murderer invited us all to become amateur sleuths; these types of documentaries have seen a significant and violent spike in popularity, with Netflix a keen distributor of the brand.  With the release of The Confession Tapes, the streaming giant will have been hoping to replicate the success of its previous, similar offerings. Although the positives do outweigh the negatives, it’s hard to tie down where it stands in the canon. Much like the cases presented, we are left with nagging doubts when the credits begin to roll.

For the uninitiated, the series looks into high profile murder cases with circumstantial evidence that relied on confessions that were often coerced or obtained through entrapment. The first two episodes centre on the arrest and trial of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, who were accused to have conspired to kill the latters parents in 1994 in order to claim the insurance money.  These episodes are the series strongest, due to the layers of depth added to the two men’s back-stories and analysis of the case itself. Furthermore, it is the most compelling due to the now banned techniques of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the accused were Canadians visiting Rafay’s parents who had relocated to Seattle) specifically the “Mr Big” technique where they gain the suspects trust in order to force a confession. Such clearly devious methods hit home hard as we are left questioning the motives and machinations of the inner working of officials there to protect the public.

In terms of structure, these two episodes focus on a singular case whereas all the other cases are only allocated one. It’s a strange move from rookie Director/Creator Kelly Loudenberg. From a logistical point of view, it’s difficult to form valid opinions and form decisions in 45 minutes of run time. Whether there was extra footage left on the cutting room floor or it’s a deliberate choice, it makes the series automatically feel top heavy. Despite this, there are standout episodes. In todays society, the part entitled 8th and H serves as a great social commentary on race tensions in the USA as eight young black men are sentenced for a brutal gang killing of 48-year-old Catherine Fuller in Washington DC in 1984; as relevant today over 30 years on.  Again, the police techniques and methodology are put under the spotlight due to their apparent preconceptions that this neighbourhood was in the grip of a gang who they believe, ultimately, committed this grisly murder.

The parallels and links between the US police forces become all too apparent in the language and words they employ. Leading statements such as “Tell us what we want to hear” and “Just admit to it and it will all be over” have a hypnotic quality as an almost Stockholm Syndrome-esque situation develops. In the above case, evidence is almost none existent and the grilling of 16-year-old Clifton Yarborough, who had known learning difficulties, makes for uncomfortable viewing. Defendants often speak of “wanting to feel a release and it for it be over” as experts on false confessions make compelling arguments. Other cases, including a mother accused of burning down the family home with her daughter inside and a dad of four who allegedly drove his car into the Detroit river with his family in tow, are horrific yet uncertain crimes as the defendants plead innocence.

At times, it feels as if youngster Loudenberg has bitten off more than she can chew. The narrative feels rushed at times and the viewer cheated as the pace rattles along likes a freight train in the one case per episode format, dropping off critical analysis by the way side. Although the wide range of cast and characters each episode adds scope, it conversely blunts the focus. Furthermore, which is beyond her control, certain policeman and criminal prosecutors declined to be interview for the series that makes these episodes feel lopsided and the audience is not able to make their judgment without their.

Despite this, overall this is a very strong piece of investigative filmmaking. Archive footage, extensive interviewing, access to police documents and material is extremely immersive. Loudenberg does not avert her eyes, not flinching or simply editing the often graphic, raw police footage of the crime scene. The shooting style clearly borrows from Making a Murderer. Recreated footage has a crisp, slick quality, adding a much needed visual quality to the narratives. In addition, the action often moves out into the rural and local communities, including an astonishing confrontation from one of the defendant’s lawyer’s with a potential suspect not sufficiently investigated by the police. The series as a whole poses more questions than it answers; but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the U.S in particular, what is justice and how should we trust our police forces? For the most part, the audience is the jury. We are presented with the facts and asked to draw our own conclusions without being preached to.

Ultimately, the strength of the mini series is in the title. It’s in these grainy video taped confession interviews, often harrowing watches, where the true psychological nature of interrogations and the phenomena of false confessions are truly exhibited. There is an element of Kafka-esque horror to them; defendants who repeatedly plead blamelessness are visibly broken down and finally relent to the detective’s demands. Are they genuine confessions of relief or merely the exhausted yielding of damaged and despairing minds? As in a court of law, it’s up to you to decide.

★★★★☆