America is a nation of repressed detectives, judging by our love affairs with true-crime shows and podcasts like Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer. That someone died is almost an afterthought; we focus on the cathartic thrill of a mystery solved, the petty joy of considering how we'd do a better job than law enforcement professionals, or the hope that—if not in our lives—justice will at least be served on TV.
So casual Netflix browsers are forgiven if they might think The Confession Tapes, a new series from journalist and documentarian Kelly Loudenberg, is the next binge-able step in our true-crime obsession. Instead, it's a seven-part indictment of our criminal justice system, the trust we put in law enforcement, and the reasons why people confess to crimes they didn't commit.
Over the course of six cases told in seven episodes, the show grapples with the phenomenon of false confessions, weaving together taped confessions from each featured defendant with archival media coverage and interviews with the suspects, their families and friends, police, lawyers, and various experts.
The individual circumstances of each case are different, but the themes are distressingly similar: multi-hour interrogations without lawyers present; cartoonishly overconfident detectives and prosecutors who decide extremely early on that their suspects are the only suspects and neglect other leads in the process; communities with a high regard for supreme police authority; and juries swayed by the dynamic, polished performances of prosecutors as well as their own disbelief that anyone would falsely to confess to murder.
The first two episodes focus on Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns, two college students who, after a night of partying while at home on vacation in Bellevue, Washington, in 1994, come home to discover Rafay's parents and sister murdered in their family home. Despite alibis that place them in nearby Seattle*, police decide almost immediately that Burns and Rafay must be the murderers simply because they don't display their grief in a manner the police find acceptable. The lack of DNA evidence doesn't matter, nor does a strong lead that indicates the murders may have been committed by an Islamic extremist group with a vendetta against Rafay's father. Instead, Rafay and Burns's confessions are drawn out after months of a sting operation technique Canadian police call "Mr. Big": undercover agents, pretending to be the leaders of an international crime syndicate, claim they can save the two from death row—if only they confess to their crimes. It takes months, but the agents are successful. The jury easily convicts Burns and Rafay, both of whom remain in prison to this day. When police departments can't perform a sting operation, they rely on emotional manipulation and sheer exhaustion to meet their goal. "Say it and be done with it," one detective tells Buddy Woodall, a man accused of a double homicide involving his uncle. After just a few minutes, you want Woodall to either confess or turn over a table, scream, fight—anything to break the tension, to make it stop. In perhaps the show's most heartbreaking episode, Karen Boes, a mother whose daughter was killed in a house fire, visibly shrinks under the gaze of a detective who convinces her, through hours of interrogation without a lawyer present, that because she failed a polygraph test, she must have been the one to set the fire. "The machine doesn't lie," the detective tells her. "It has no reason to lie." He goads Boes into believing his own elaborate theory: that she must have set the fire herself, in some kind of sleepwalking dream state. There's no catharsis, no sense of justice served nor bad guys apprehended. Just a bewildered, grieving mother.
Loudenberg came up with the idea for The Confession Tapes while watching an episode of Forensic Files. Contrary to the show's usual "always get their guy through science" formula, as Loudenberg put it, this episode featured a subject's false confession. She reached out to Steve Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern and an expert in false confessions, which led to her to conversations with multiple experts and a year of research before going into production.
Loudenberg says that she wanted to find "the cases that time forgot": "A lot of these people aren't actively represented by any lawyer, or they've used up all their appeals and they're kind of just languishing in prison. The possibility that they're innocent and that they don't belong there was a lot for me to…" she trails off. "It was a huge responsibility."
There's no sense of justice being served, no opportunity for appeals or redemption, which Loudenberg was well aware of. "[A] lot of other true crime documentaries or TV do end with some kind of optimism, and I didn't realize how relentless it was when I was making it," she explains. "Although, I definitely felt that… I really had hoped to find some redemption."
There isn't any in The Confession Tapes, but what makes it so hard to watch is exactly why you should watch it.
*Correction 10/13/17: An earlier version of this article said Burns's and Rafay's alibis placed them in Vancouver. We regret the error.