Homicide: Life on The Street Retrospective, Part 5

We’ve Heard a Lot About Police Interrogations. The Baltimore PD on Homicide Was An Outlier.

He could make you confess, but because you did it. gettyimages.com

Over the past couple of months we have learned a lot about police interrogations. John Oliver did a segment on it Last Week Tonight’s most recent episode in which he went in to great detail about the makeup of how these interrogations proceed, the way that the narrative the police use to determine whether a suspect is guilty is deeply flawed, that police are allowed to lie in their interrogations, and that more often then not this had led to faulty convictions that DNA evidence has later led to exonerations.

I actually knew a great deal of this going in to the segment. And when it came to the Baltimore Police Department, I knew even more: a recent story in New York magazine has revealed that many of the detectives that were profiled in David Simon’s book that led to the inspiration for Homicide revealed that the department now is facing a raft of convictions being overturned and many of the detectives that inspired many of the characters in the series were responsible for many of them. Simon himself has now begun to doubt whether his original portrayal of these detectives was entirely impartial.

When I learned about this I was considerably thrown — it gutted me in a certain way to learn that one of my all-time favorite series might have some dirt attached to what was its more important point. The ‘box’, after all, was where the Homicide was the most comfortable. It has taken me some time to assess this, and my conclusion is: while the real life detectives in Homicide the book might well be guilty of these crimes, I don’t think the detectives in Homicide the series are.

Now I have watched and rewatched every episode of the series at least half a dozen in times in my life — I did a rewatch as recent as five years ago. The interrogation scenes, where Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher)worked confessions out of people are among the greatest dramatic scenes in the history of television. And fundamentally, I think that Tom Fontana and his writers basically did a very clean job when it came to them. Detectives are allowed to lie to suspects, and to be clear, the detectives on Homicide did do that on more than one occasion. But honestly, they didn’t do it that often. Out of more than 123 episodes during seven seasons, I think all of the detectives who ever worked at the Baltimore Homicide Unit lied a grand total of a dozen times to suspects. Considering that this probably contains around at least two hundred cases, that’s almost an unrealistic ratio, considering what we have seen on police procedurals. (There’s one in particular I’ll deal with, but I’m going to save that for a separate article.)

By and large, there was basically one lie that every detective more or less maintain before they began the interview and that was getting just about every suspect to sign the Miranda waiver. Granted, the lion’s shares of these suspects were guilty anyway but this was a deception. Indeed, this was made clear in the very first episode. Pembleton is interrogating a suspect and gets him to sign a waiver. During the interrogation, the suspect ‘thinks’ he wants a lawyer and Pembleton talks him out of it and gets him to confess. The rookie Bayliss witnesses this and calls Frank on it. Frank basically berates him by telling him that the man will change his story before trial, the DA will plead him down to five years and the killer will do maybe a third of that before he’s released. (The suspect is clearly guilty by the way.) These are the ground rules that Homicide laid out, and however one questions the irregularity of the Miranda waiver, the fact remains, as we shall see, that’s pretty much the only deception the detectives would ever engage in.

By contrast, quite a few of the interrogations that took place on the series occurred with defense attorneys present, and some of the best drama would often come as the detectives tried to work around this. One of my all time favorite episodes is ‘Work Related’ where Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and Pembleton are interrogating an accomplice to a triple shooting at a restaurant. The suspect is a teenager and his parents have given him an attorney and in one of the show’s greatest interrogations occur as the two detectives manage to work around the defense attorneys maneuvers. (This is also the episode where, mid-interview, Pembleton suffers a stroke in the box.)

I think a large part of the reason that Homicide stayed so far within the lines when it came to interrogation was because of Al Giardello’s (the late Yaphet Kotto) leadership of the squad. As a veteran of the days when detectives would beat a confession out of a man, he continued to make sure his detectives played fair most of the time. That didn’t mean he didn’t want the cases closed, but he never pressed as hard as some of the others.

This level of fairness when it comes to interrogation is perhaps made the most clearly in what may well be the show’s finest hour: ‘Three Men and Adena’. This episode is the climax of the first and most important arc on Homicide: the investigation into the murder of eleven year old Adena Watson. For four episodes, Bayliss has been circling around his prime suspect: Risley Tucker, aka the Araber. He has been brought in multiple times and as the episode begins, Gee warns him that this is their last shot and that they are bordering on a harassment suit. Bayliss tells Giardello that they will get the interrogation no matter how long it takes. Pembleton counters that they have at most twelve hours, or any court will end up tossing the confession.

The rest of the episode takes place in ‘the box’ and centers on Bayliss, Pembleton and the Araber (Moses Gunn’s last role before he passed away). The interrogation follows just about measure we are used to in a police drama, Bayliss relentless and demanding; Pembleton friendly and cordial. The heat isn’t working; the jackets are off both men by the time the episode is halfway over. Tucker is fed, talked too, and relentless pressed until he admits very tired. Two things are typical of Homicide; the detective pressure Tucker with the evidence they have, but they never fabricate any. All the pressure is psychological. And Tucker never comes close to break or even appearing guilty. The Araber walks out the room a free man, and the case is never closed. Bayliss spends the rest of the series always looking for Adena’s killer in every murderer. And the audience leaves as unsure of Tucker’s guilt at the end of the episode as they did in the beginning. It may be the most realistic interrogation scene in the history of the medium; it did win Tom Fontana an Emmy for Best Teleplay that year. And it speaks to the ambiguity that surrounded everything that made Homicide great that Pembleton leaves it certain that the Araber murdered Watson, and Bayliss is no now longer so sure.

I am not saying that the detectives on Homicide ever lied to the suspects on the series or played on false science to make things word. One of the most famous scenes in the series comes when Bolander (Beatty) and Munch (Richard Belzer) subject a witness to the ‘electrolyte-neutron-magnetic test scanner’, aka, a copy machine to get him to admit to the guilt of a murderer. (The witness is cagey enough to know is a copy machine, but is dim enough to believe the detectives.) But such experiments, while usually played for comedy, were rare. That’s because the detectives held key to a holy trinity when it came to solving a murder: a witness, evidence, maybe a confession. In his rant about the flaws of interrogations, John Oliver said that while investigating a crime, police should, you know, investigate. That is exactly what every single detective on Homicide well before they even thought of putting a suspect in the box. They were willing to manipulate the suspects, but they never went in without ammunition.

And it’s also worth noting that for many of the cases on Homicide; even having evidence was no guarantee that the suspect would confess. Quite the contrary, there were at least a dozen episodes where they had would push hard on the suspect, but he’d never crack. And there were more than a few cases where the detectives would manage to interrogate a suspect and then find out that they were wrong. In an episode that was quite remarkable, Munch is investigating a suspicious death where he suspects the husband is lying about knowing what happened to his wife. The M.E. (Michelle Forbes) refuses to call it a homicide, but Munch, certain something is wrong, relentlessly presses the husband until he admit that’s he is responsible for his wife’s death. When Munch comes to see the ME, she then tells him that not only the husband innocent, it’s not a murder — his wife overdosed on heroin, and his guilt about leaving her alone forced him to cover it up. To be sure Munch’s reaction is not the best — “I only care if it’s a murder” — but I suspect most detectives would be similarly irked if they’d wasted their time on this. (The husband is immediately released.)

I don’t think any of the detectives on Homicide were superhuman in the way that they have been betrayed on police procedurals before or since. Even ‘the almighty’ Pembleton was never truly perfect — there were multiple occasions where he pursued the wrong lead and didn’t admit he was wrong until the investigation was over. And there was even one major case when he was relentlessly pursuing a suspect towards a confession when Sgt. Howard came in with the perp, who’d confessed and had the murder weapon. Stoically, he unlocked his suspect and just said: ‘Go home.’

I don’t have enough evidence to know about the methods behind the detectives who were at the center of the Baltimore PD in Homicide the book and if they are indeed representative of how criminal investigations work as a whole throughout the country amplified by their being a vital part of American television. What I know with certainty is that the detectives created by David Simon and Tom Fontana for Homicide: Life on the Street did nothing to besmirch the reputation of criminal justice. Much like everything else about the series, the show is an outlier on the police procedural. There is a far greater example of a series that is, in learning this, an even greater stain on how we view criminal justice and in another article, I will deal with it.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.