Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the Academy Award-winning documentary "Murder on a Sunday Morning" illustrates the defense for innocence in the acclaimed Brenton Butler case. On a Sunday morning in May 2000, African-American 15-year-old Brenton Butler was wrongfully accused of murdering a Caucasian tourist outside the Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida. The Brenton Butler case spotlights the numerous unjust fallacies of the police procedures enacted throughout Butler’s investigation. I argue that the law enforcement officers obstructed justice through their brutally misconducted interrogation that culminated Butler’s coerced false confession.
Of the abounding miscarriages of justice enacted by police officers during their investigation, the most noteworthy were the unsubstantiated initial identification for Butler’s unwarranted arrest, the failure to properly Mirandize him and most importantly, the physical brutality and psychological coercion used to extract Butler’s false confession.
As a suspect, Butler’s vulnerabilities, such as age, race and attire, were exacerbated by the inhumane interrogation techniques that he was subjected to. During trial, Butler’s criminal defense attorneys Patrick McGuiness and Ann Finnell employed photographic proof of the facial and bodily injuries Butler incurred by detective Michael Glover. After being physically beaten in a field too far from the crime scene for Butler to have been present, which was alleged to contain the gun he supposedly committed the crime with and disposed of, he was brought in for questioning without his parents or an attorney present, was detained and aggressively questioned for a traumatic twelve hours. The most preeminent factor during the interrogation was the confession that was written up by the interrogators who intimidated and threatened Butler into signing it.
The following empirical studies can be used to prove the argument that the miscarriages of justice executed by law enforcement officers lead to Butler’s elicited false confession.
An empirical study by Arndorfer, Cauffman and Malloy (2015) examines male juvenile offenders’ perceptions of police and legal systems in relation to their risk of wrongful conviction for their false confessions. The researchers hypothesized that coercive interrogations and self-reported false confessions correlated with youths’ more negative perceptions of the legal system. However, the results indicated that neither interrogation nor confession experiences related to youth's perception of the legal system. Although, most notably the results supported policy reform of interrogation procedures used with young and vulnerable suspects.
In the present study, 193 juvenile offenders, with ages ranging from 14 to 17, incarcerated in a secure juvenile justice facility in California comprised the analytic sample. From the facility that housed the most serious criminal backgrounds, most youth from the sample were of African-American ethnicity and a relatively low socioeconomic status. The instrument used to gather data was the General Procedural Justice (GPJ) scale, which assessed the attitudes of the research participants based on the ratings of a five-point frequency scale in response to statements about the fairness of the legal system. The youth completed the scale three times over the course of three consecutive months.
The significant strengths of this study include a strong validity and reliability, a clear identification of the study’s purpose, hypothesis, design, terminology and results, a logical organization and comprehensive report of research procedures, a consideration of ethics such as properly conducted informed consent from parents/guardians and research participants, and a clear cohesion of ideas that linked the analyses and the results of the study to the reviewed literature. The weaknesses of this study include a need for a more expansive and larger sample size and a more elaborate clarification as to how their results should contribute to the reformation of current law enforcement interrogation procedures.
An empirical study by Berger, Costanzo and Shaked-Schroer (2015) investigated whether mock jurors would overlook coercive interrogation tactics in relation to whether or not a confession lead to incriminating evidence, especially if they believed the defendant was guilty. The researchers predicted that the jurors would rate the interrogation as less coercive and the confession as more believable if the confession justified the evidence rather than not justifying the evidence. Consistent with the hypothesis, the results suggested that mock jurors judged an interrogation as less coercive when the confession validated the evidence than when evidence was not found.
The study’s sample size composed 260 participants through an online data collection service called Mechanical Turk. A 2x2 experimental research design between-subjects was used. The experimental materials utilized an online program called Survey Monkey. The research participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions, which included reading case facts and attorney’s notes and watching a videotaped interrogation and confession before completing a questionnaire. After excluding those who did not complete the experiment, the sample consisted of two hundred and two participants, the majority of which were females.
The strengths of this study include a concise abstract that included the study’s purpose, methods, results and conclusions, a strong hypothesis supported by the results, the use of supporting reviewed literature and graphs to represent their findings. Significantly, the numerous weaknesses of this study include a weak validity and reliability, a lack of clarity of terminology, disorganized review of the research procedures, redundancy of imprecise explanations throughout the article, inadequately described theoretical framework and a lack of ethical overview and discussion of informed consent. I suggest they conduct the research measure in person rather than online to assure greater accuracy of results, with a larger sample size over a wider duration period which was left unspecified.
An empirical study by Gudjonsson, Sigurdsson and Sigfusdottir (2010) explores the relationship between false confessions during custodial interrogation and group bullying. The researchers hypothesized that bully-victims would be the most likely to give a false confession when interrogated by police. Congruent with the hypothesis, the results concluded that bully-victims were most likely to be interrogated by police and give false confessions. The results suggested that bully-victims were the weakest psychologically during interrogations as opposed to pure bullies being the strongest.
The study’s sample size was separated into two groups: 7,149 Icelandic and 24,627 European pupils in he last two years of their compulsory education; both samples had a mean age of 15.5 and a mostly equal ratio of female to male participants. After completing an in-class questionnaire about interrogations, false confessions and bullying, over 97 percent of the participants answered the questions. The instrument used in the study was a questionnaire, as explicitly listed in the article, which consisted of five questions rated on a five-point frequency scale that was developed by two Icelandic research institutes.
The significant strengths of this study include a strong reliability and validity, a clear and adequate explanation of the study’s purpose, aim, hypothesis, design, terminology such as the “quadrant” classification of bullies, and results that strengthened their hypothesis, an acknowledgement of ethical considerations, a logical and natural flow of the research reports and methodology, a solid link between reported analyses and supporting reviewed literatures, and the use of data tables to represent their findings. The weaknesses of this study include a lack of titles for a more organized review and a need for a more organized abstract.
In light of the preceding three empirical articles, the prosecution in Butler’s case could have improved their understanding of three main crucial factors which would have helped establish due justice sooner than later. These three factors include the implications that coercive police interrogations have on vulnerable suspects like Butler, the likelihood that a false confession will sway a jury’s judgement of the defendant as guilty and the increased chance that police officers who bully their suspects, especially vulnerable minority males, during an interrogation are more likely to elicit a false confession.
The study by Arndorfer, Cauffman and Malloy (2015) brings awareness to the increased risk of wrongful convictions due to the vulnerability of being a male adolescent. Butler was an extremely vulnerable suspect due to being a young African-American male which greatly increased his chances of being wrongfully convicted and most remarkably contributed to him being a suspect in the first place.
The study by Berger, Costanzo and Shaked-Schroer (2015) reveals the immensely powerful impact a confession, whether true or false, has on a jury’s judgement of the defendant. The significant relation between this article and Butler’s case is that Butler’s coerced false confession may have more than likely wrongfully convicted him; he would have been incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
The study by Gudjonsson, Sigurdsson, and Sigfusdottir (2010) supports that young adolescent bully-victims are most likely to give a false confession in a police interrogation. In Butler’s case, the police bullied the vulnerable Butler into signing the false confession they wrote after being seriously threatened.In conclusion, the legacy of the Brenton Butler case brought an increased awareness of the miscarriages of justice that occur during law enforcement interrogations that often lead to false confessions. Butler’s case also helped implement the use of videotaping police interrogations, as well as other procedural changes, that will hopefully help continue the improvements within our legal justice systems.