By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
What a horrific, tragic, and deranged murder!
Trying to compartmentalize and separate the legal aspects of Netflix “American Murder: The Family Next Door” from the human aspects is difficult to do – but it’s exactly what we do as criminal defense lawyers.
I’m writing because I’m very impressed with how Netflix was able to tell the story through all the text messages, home and police videos, and social media. It’s really a view into what 21st century crime investigation and courtroom story telling can look like.
This story in particular is nothing short of soul-crushing and everyone is happy Shannan Watts, her children and her family got the justice they deserved and Chris Watts is behind bars for the rest of his life. But 21st century evidence such as cell phone texts, videos, social media including police advances in body-camera evidence are revolutionary ways to prove innocence too.
How Netflix Told the Story
I was fascinated by how Netflix was able to tell the story – not through talking heads or narration – but just by showing us the text messages, then showing us police body-cam videos, sprinkling in home movies, showing us social media posts and comments, and on and on. Isn’t it amazing how our technology and ways of communicating can tell our stories this way?
Cell Phone Evidence
I lecture on the topic of cell phone evidence in the courtroom and have written about it as well. It’s not nearly as easy to do as Netflix made it look. We were able to see victim Shannan Watts’ texts to her family and friends as well as to Chris.
Notably absent in my mind were Chris’ texts to anyone other than Shannan — and this tells me they weren’t able to get into his phone.
Police Body-Cam Evidence
I can’t understate what an amazing, wonderful tool police body-cameras are. In the American Murder: The Family Next Door, we got to see Chris Watts’ charade with our own eyes when the police initially came over to his house to locate Shannan the day after the killing. We got to see Chris Watts face, demeanor, and mannerisms — the smallest details.
In the past – we’d have gotten a police officer’s recollection from the witness stand and potentially some of the other people there too. Their testimony would be almost always be shaded and slanted for no other reasons they are humans with a particular perspective. If this case had turned into a trial – they’d have had to have testified anyway… but the point I’m trying to make is the body-cameras cut through all of that. We see what we see.
The law has often pushed police towards recording interviews and statements. Texas has a statute (Tex.Code.Crim.P. 38.22) which requires custodial interrogations to be recorded. It protects both the police and the accused from an unfair spinning or characterization of how the interview actually went.
Unfortunately, in the past it has been a law enforcement tactic for a police officer to “forget” their recording device before an interview – so they can spin the interview how they’d like in court later. Police agencies who require bod-cams basically put an end to it.
And as a side note – sometimes the police forget to turn off the body cameras and we get to see the water-cooler talk about the case and we hear weaknesses about the cases we’d never hear in a courtroom from the police.
Social Media Evidence
It’s difficult to know what, if any, artistic license Netflix took in this arena. They presented several home videos as if they were social media posts. Perhaps they were and perhaps that was just how they presented them. What they did use was effective in telling the story.
Legally this would be far more complicated to use in a courtroom than in a documentary. There are issues with what we call “authentication” and it could involve having to deal directly with social media mega-giants who often treat both prosecutors and defense lawyers like fleas they shake off when they get annoyed with us.
Police Interviews and Polygraph
This was the part of the Chris Watts story which is more old-school and presented nothing new. Bringing in a suspect for a polygraph is a very common investigative tactic. The polygraph itself is inadmissible in court and as lawyers we’re always very leery of who is conducting the polygraph… because they’re all based on the questions and the questions can be slanted in certain directions.
When Police do a polygraph they almost always want to do a follow-up interview. They think the person will fail the polygraph, and just like a linebacker wants to crush the quarterback after the ball is snapped — the police want to get a confession right after someone takes the polygraph (even if the results are inconclusive or if they accuse the person of using “countermeasures” or trying to game the test).
It worked for the police like a charm against Chris Watts. They even used the age old, “are you a monster or just some guy who made a mistake” line on him — which is a question we hear all the time in cases like sexual assault, child abuse, or domestic violence. If the suspect chooses, “I just made a mistake” then the police have their confession.
The police also pretended to know more about Chris’ life than they actually knew at the time. I don’t recall anything they’d seen at the time of his interview which suggested they would know he was having an affair – but when he admitted to it, they represented to him they knew this all along. It’s a part of the Reid method of interrogation (that’s another topic).
Overall I found the show — again horrific and tragic — yet fascinating from a lawyer’s perspective. The Chris Watts murder may be a high-budget and high profile outlier in how the story was able to be told… but during the 21st century, I’m pretty certain we’ll be using text messages, home videos and police body-cams to tell much more complete stories for other types of cases too.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He has been designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.