A Confession, currently streaming on Britbox, stars Martin Freeman, Siobhan Finneran, Imelda Staunton, and Joe Absolom. It is based on — not inspired by — a true story, specifically the 2011 murder of Sian O’Callaghan, which I gather is a familiar case to anyone living in the UK. I was not familiar with either the murder of O’Callaghan or the 2003 murder of Becky Godden-Edwards by the same man, a taxi driver named Christopher Halliwell (Absolom), so how A Confession unfolded all came as a surprise to me.
The series, at first, feels like a show about a murder investigation, and then maybe an investigation of a serial killer, neither of which are uncommon subjects for dark British series. Ultimately, however, it’s a show that hinges on criminal procedure. In the UK, police are required to “caution” suspects — which is the equivalent of our Miranda Rights — and as is this case in the United States, failure to do so may result in the suppression of evidence at trial.
As is also the case in the United States, there is an emergency exception to the requirement that one’s rights be read to them, such as in a hostage or abduction situation. In the UK back in 2011, a detective named Stephen Fulcher (Freeman) was confronted with what I thought was a legally interesting wrinkle to that exception. He arrested Christopher Halliwell for the murder of Sian O’Callaghan, and because Fulcher believed that O’Callaghan might have still been alive, he continued to question Halliwell even after he asked for an attorney. This was an acceptable exception, and Halliwell ultimately led Fulcher to O’Callaghan’s body.
This is where it gets hairy. After leading Fulcher to the body of O’Callaghan, Halliwell offers to lead Fulcher to the body of another victim, who had been dead for 8 years. Fulcher accepts the information, which eventually leads to the discovery of the body of Becky Godden-Edwards. The catch, however, is this: Godden-Edwards had been dead for eight years. There was no emergency exception. Instead of allowing Halliwell to detail the location of Godden-Edwards’ body, Fulcher was required to take him back to the police station and allow him a lawyer. Had he done so, Godden-Edwards’ body would never have been discovered, and the family of Godden-Edwards’ would never have been given closure in their daughters’ death.
Ultimately, the six-episode series is about the fallout from that confession: How it affected the career of Stephen Fulcher, how it affected the murder trial(s) of Stephen Halliwell, and how it affected the families of both O’Callaghan and Godden-Edwards. It’s a remarkable series for a number of reasons, not least of which is how restrained it is. In the hands of an American creator, we’re basically looking at Jack Bauer torturing a confession out of a serial killer and being wrapped in the American flag by a thankful nation. This is not that show, although Fulcher apparently was celebrated by a lot of Brits for disregarding Halliwell’s right to an attorney in furtherance of finding Godden-Edwards’ body.
In any respect, it’s an engrossing series, and for Americans, A Confession offers an interesting glimpse into the British equivalent of Fourth Amendment law. Freeman is excellently workmanlike in his depiction of Fulcher, while Finneran and Staunton — who play the grieving mothers of the victims — are phenomenal, as always.
Though it is ostensibly about a loophole in criminal law, A Confession is really about the ripple effects of one man’s decision. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to A Confession, however, is that it is a quick and riveting binge, and it never gets dragged down by its heavy subject material. This is a brisk moving but low-key series that lets the dramatic turns speak for themselves. It also raises some interesting questions about allowing some leeway for common sense in the investigation of murders, although we’ve all seen how police officers too often pervert that leeway.
‘A Confession’ is currently available in America on the Britbox streaming service.
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