FEATURED LESSON PLAN: Weighing the Evidence
In this lesson plan, students will watch the third video chapter of The Confessions; read about a fictional case; examine and compare the different pieces of evidence involved in the case; and discuss in small groups whether, based on the evidence, they think the suspect is guilty or innocent and why.
Forensic Science, U.S. Government, Civics, Psychology, Law
The student will:
- Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different types of evidence, including physical evidence, eyewitness accounts and confession
- Decide whether there is sufficient evidence to determine if a suspect committed a crime
- Identify the knowns and unknowns of a case and explore the concept of doubt
Estimated Time Needed:
One 50-minute class period. For classes able to spend more time or that need additional background, please see the teaching strategies outlined in the Lesson Extensions.
- Internet access and equipment to show the class online video clips
- Chapter Three of The Confessions: “And Still No DNA Match...” (length: 13:20)
- Handout 1: The Confessions — Notes
- Handout 2: You Decide
Ask students whether they can think of a time when they have (or someone they know has) admitted to doing something wrong that they didn’t actually do. If so, have them briefly share the circumstances and why they did it. If no one offers an example, ask students whether they could imagine a situation where they might admit to something they didn’t do, such as to protect a family member or friend.
Explain that they will be watching a clip of a FRONTLINE story about four different men — known as the “Norfolk Four” — who each confessed to a violent crime they did not commit. Ask students:
- What are some reasons someone might make a false confession like that?
- If someone were to confess to committing a crime, would you believe that confession over other evidence at the crime scene, such as fingerprints, eyewitness accounts and so on?
Before showing the chapter, give students a brief synopsis of what happened in the story prior to this segment:
A U.S. Navy sailor came home to his apartment in Norfolk, Va., to find that his wife, Michelle, had been brutally raped and murdered. Police questioned his neighbor Danial Williams about the case, and Williams claimed to be innocent. Although he passed a polygraph (lie detector) test, the police told Williams that he had failed it. After more than 11 hours of interrogation, Williams confessed to the crime.
After test results of DNA from the crime scene did not match Williams’ DNA, police concluded that Williams must have had an accomplice. They interrogated his roommate, Joe Dick Jr., who said that he was innocent. After many hours of intense interrogation, Dick also confessed to the crime. Since Dick knew he was innocent, he assumed that the DNA test would set him free.
(For more details, see the Case Timeline).
Give students copies of Handout 1: The Confessions Notes. Have students view Chapter Three: "And Still No DNA Match...” (length 13:20) and take notes on the handout as they watch. After viewing, have them rank the evidence in terms of how strongly it connects the person to the crime.
Tell students they will have a chance to examine evidence in a different case and evaluate whether it is sufficient to prove that the suspect committed a crime. Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Give each student a copy of Handout 2: You Decide, and have them read the case.
Direct groups to list and analyze the various kinds of evidence involved in the case using the table on Handout 2. They should then try to come to an agreement about whether Cameron is guilty or not, based on the evidence. Ask them to be ready to explain their decision.
Lead the class in a discussion about the case and students’ findings, comparing this case to the Norfolk Four case.
- Did your group conclude that Cameron was guilty or not guilty? On what did you base your decision?
- Was your group’s decision the same or different from your individual decision? If it was different, what made you change your mind?
- How did Cameron’s admission to taking the picture play into your group’s decision? Do you believe that he would admit to doing something he didn’t do? In what ways does this situation resemble the Norfolk Four case? How is it different?
- In the United States, jurors may not find a person guilty if there is more than a “reasonable doubt” of his or her guilt. What does that mean? Does anyone have any remaining doubts about their group’s decision about Cameron? Based on the evidence described in the film, do you think a jury could have had reasonable doubts about the Norfolk Four’s innocence or guilt?
- Can we ever know for certain whether a suspect is innocent or guilty of a crime? What safeguards does our justice system have to protect both the victim and the accused in the face of uncertainty?