Saturday, October 25, 2008

"The Confession" (a short film about criminal law)

By Glenn Campbell - A treatment for a short film of 5-10 minutes (Screen Story #26, Oct. 2008)


We are in a sterile, fluorescent-lit interrogation room in a big city police department. A middle-aged murder suspect in street clothes, SYDNEY HIRSHFELD, is in negotiation with two detectives, DONNY POLANSKI and DAVID TAN. Clearly, they have been talking for hours and both sides look worn down.

Detective Polanski, a tough veteran of the force, explains the bottom line: Hirshfeld's wife has been found dead in their home. The detectives have already shown Hirshfeld the bloody photos of the crime scene. Polanski says Hirshfeld's fingerprints were found on the murder weapon, and Hirshfeld can provide no verification of his whereabouts at the time of the murder. The couple were facing difficulties in their marriage, and Hirshfeld had taken out a large life insurance policy on his wife shortly before the murder.

"It's an open-and-shut case," says Polanski.

Detective Tan, a soft-spoken Asian officer with a gift for diplomacy, explains that Hirshfeld has two options: He can deny the murder and go to trial, with a possible death sentence or life in prison if convicted, or he can confess, be charged with manslaughter and do only 10-to-15 years.

Polanski explains once again that if Hirshfeld cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to him, but Hirshfeld shrugs off the suggestion.

Polanski pushes a typed confession in front of Hirshfeld for him to sign, and reluctantly he does.

Just then, Hirshfeld's cellphone rings, and he asks politely if he can answer it. Polanski looks pleased with the confession and is feeling generous. "Sure," he says.

Hirshfeld takes the call and is puzzled by it at first, but then his face fills with joy. "It's Judith!" he says to the detectives.

"Who's Judith?" says Polanski.

"My wife!" says Hirshfeld, greatly relieved. "She's not dead!"

Polanski's turns white. He asks to speak with her.

Talking on Hirshfeld's cellphone, Polanski asks the woman a series of questions, and as he does the errors of the investigation become apparent. They got the street address wrong! The body was found at 235 Washington Street, but the Hirshfelds live a few doors down at 253 Washington Street. Mrs. Hirshfeld is feeling fine!

As Polanski talks to the wife, Hirshfeld's own demeanor turns from joy to horror, as he looks down at the document in his hands. He has just confessed to a murder he didn't commit!

Hirshfeld, we begin to see, is a bit dim and has little knowledge of law or police procedure.

Polanski, looking stunned, gives the phone back to Hirshfeld. Hirshfeld is very nervous now, thinking he is going to do 10-to-15 years for the crime down the street.

He talks to his wife: "Listen, Honey, I've got a problem here. I might be going away for a while."

Polanski shakes his head. "Wait, I need to check some things. Tell her you'll call her back."

Hirshfeld tearfully tells his wife he loves her and hangs up. Polanski leaves the room, while Detective Tan stays. Tan doesn't fully understand what is going on, so there is nothing much he can say to Hirshfeld. Instead he can only listen to Hirshfeld grieve over what he has just done.

"I thought you found my fingerprints on the weapon," says Hirshfeld.

Tan: "Um, I'm not exactly sure what they found, but if they've made a mistake, I'm sure they'll correct it."

That doesn't calm Hirshfeld. He asks if he can make a call. Tan asks to whom, and Hirshfeld says his brother-in-law. Tan says it's okay, so Hirshfeld makes the call on his cell phone. He tells his brother-in-law that he has a problem, and he begins to describe his situation.

While Hirshfeld is talking on his cell phone, Polanski comes back into the room. He whispers to Tan: "We're in deep shit." Polanski motions Tan outside, and they hold a hushed conversation just outside the doorway of the interrogation room. Tan says Hirshfeld asked about the fingerprints on the weapon. Polanski acknowledges that they lied about that to obtain the confession, which isn't illegal.

Tan sums up what has happened: They have picked up an innocent accountant at work, brought into the station, told him his wife has been brutally murdered, then told him they had overwhelming evidence against him. He believed it, thought he had been framed and was going to be convicted. He confessed only so he would get 10-15 years instead of the death penalty. The detectives fed him the details and he repeated what they wanted him to.

Tan calls it "a case study in police incompetence and coerced confessions."

Polanski says that he, Tan and the whole department are going to be screwed if this story gets out. They have to get the confession away from Hirshfeld or get him to rip it up, or they might both be out of the job.

In the interrogation room, Hirshfeld hangs up the phone. He says: "Andrew says he's on his way. He told me not to do anything until he gets here."

Tan: "Who's Andrew?"

Hirshfeld: "My brother-in-law. Andrew Belli."

Both detectives look startled.

Polanski: "You mean Andrew Belli, the criminal defense attorney?"

Tan: "The candidate for City Council? The anti-corruption guy?"

Hirshfeld: "Yes, that's him."

Polanski: "Why didn't you call him when we asked if you wanted an attorney?"

Hirshfeld: "You told me my wife was dead and you thought I did it. I'm not going to call up her brother to ask him for help, because he probably thinks I did it, too. But now that she's alive, I think it's okay, isn't it?" Hirshfeld, a polite and mousy man, speaks with genuine worry. He doesn't want to offend the detectives, and he's still afraid of going to jail.

Polanski: "Why didn't you ask for a different attorney?"

Hirshfeld: "You said an attorney would be appointed to me only if I couldn't afford one. I can afford an attorney, but I didn't know who to call. My wife usually handles these things. She's much better at it than I am."

Polanski: "We showed you photos of the murder scene. Couldn't you see it wasn't your wife?"

Hirshfeld: "There was a lot of blood, and I wasn't really sure, but you told me it was my wife, and I figured you're police officers and you know how to identify people. I was devastated, so I couldn't bear to look too closely. I'm sorry."

Polanski: "Mr. Hirshfeld, it's us who should be sorry. I think we've made a terrible mistake."

Polanski and Tan do their best to apologize to Hirshfeld. They say they made serious errors in their investigation and that he is no longer implicated in any way in the murder down the street. They say they have no intention of using that confession Hirshfeld just signed.

But Hirshfeld continues to hold the confession tightly in his hands. He explains again that Andrew told him not to do anything until he gets there.

As we a waiting for Andrew to arrive, the detectives become more and more agitated. A series of police supervisors come into the room to apologize. Everyone realizes their jobs are now on the line. Soon there are five police employees in the room, all looking almost as nervous as Hirshfeld did before he signed the confession. All of them want Hirshfeld to rip up his confession, but he won't. He says he has to wait for Andrew.

While the supervisors are apologizing, Hirshfeld receives a call from Andrew saying he is almost at the police station. A little later, Polanski gets a call on the desk phone that Andrew Belli has just arrived at the front desk.

Finally, flamboyant criminal defense attorney ANDREW BELLI steps into the interrogation room. He sees Hirshfeld sitting at the table with two detectives and three supervisors standing behind him. Everyone is obviously under great stress.

Hirshfeld: "Hi, Andrew."

Belli: "Hi, Sid."

Belli exchanges brief pleasantries with each other police officials, who he knows on a first-name basis. The polite words obviously mask deep tensions.

Hirshfeld (innocently): "We've got a problem, and I wonder if you can help us."

Belli assesses the situation nonverbally. We can see a sly smile come over his face as he recognizes he has just stumbled onto something big.

Belli: "I'll see what I can do."

Belli closes the door of the interrogation room behind him and we…


© Glenn Campbell, 2008.See my other screen stories at