Six people were convicted of a murder they didn't even remember. Now a county owes them $28 million
For years, a group of outcasts in Beatrice, Nebraska, were convinced they had raped and suffocated an elderly woman named Helen Wilson one night in February 1985, even though they couldn't remember any of it.
That was only what they had been told by the detectives and the police psychologist at the Gage County Sheriff's Office. At first, it was befuddling: Why couldn't they recall any details about the killing? None of the six suspects could even remember being in the woman's apartment that night. But that was okay, the police assured the group: They had simply repressed the traumatizing memories.
The police psychologist, Wayne Price, assured them the memories of the murder would likely come back in dreams or in deep thought, but that it may take a while. For some it didn't take long. "I block bad things out. I always have," Ada JoAnn Taylor told police in one of her first interviews in 1989, parroting the psychologist.
By the end of the investigation, three of the six suspects - Taylor, Debra Shelden and James Dean - wholeheartedly believed in their guilt.
But for at least one of them, Joseph White, it was a different story. Convicted on nothing more than his friends' false memories and dreams, he would spend the next 20 years seeking to prove his innocence - a pursuit that finally came to an end this week.
On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld $28.1 million in damages to the wrongfully convicted, now known as the Beatrice Six. The judgment comes as a result of a civil rights lawsuit that White filed in 2009, the same year the group was pardoned and declared innocent beyond all doubt after DNA evidence exonerated them. They had collectively served more than 70 years in prison.
The $28.1 million represents more than three times the annual budget of Gage County, population 22,311. To pay it, the county has already approved the maximum property tax hike allowed under state law, rattling taxpayers and farmers with large acreages, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Gage County had been appealing the ruling at every level, arguing that its actions should be judged based on what they knew to be right back then, not what they know is wrong now. At every level, courts rejected the county's claims, culminating with the Supreme Court's refusal to take up the case Monday.
White, however, did not live to see the final resolution. He died in a coal refinery accident in Alabama in 2011, about two years after he filed the lawsuit, according to the World-Herald.
His mother, Lois White, told the Lincoln Journal Star on Monday, "My main objective in all of it was to see that his name was cleared and that the folks that put him through all that were held up to the light for the world to see."
The wrongful convictions were a product of both aggressive interrogations and flawed science, entangling more and more suspects as their false memories grew more fanciful. Most of the suspects were familiar with trauma in some way, according to the lawsuit. Some were victims of childhood sexual or physical abuse. Some were mentally ill or intellectually challenged. And so for most, the idea that they could have repressed something terrible didn't strike them as crazy.
The "memory repression" pushed by Price, the police psychologist, reflected a popular movement among psychologists at the time. The same theory would lead to numerous wrongful convictions nationwide, including during a brief "Satanic panic" when psychologists led children to believe they were victims of sexual abuse.
But the Beatrice Six case was remarkable because some of the innocent suspects believed for years they were actually guilty, as the New Yorker's Rachel Aviv reported in 2017. Long after the group went to prison, some still cried to family and friends about their deep remorse, never shaking the gnawing feeling of shame.
Eli Chesen, a Nebraska psychologist who evaluated the group after their release from prison, told the New Yorker that they were suffering from Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which hostages develop a bond with their captors - in this case the police.
"Their new beliefs superseded their previous life experiences, like paper covering a rock," Chesen said.
Attorneys for the county and Price could not immediately be reached for comment.
For four years after Wilson's murder, police couldn't find a culprit. By 1989, they were seeking suspects who were sexually unconventional and who collected pornography. That was who the FBI believed had committed the crime, the New Yorker reported.
White and Taylor appeared to fit the bill.
Each lived on the fringes. White, who had been a nude model and pornographic filmmaker, met Taylor in California in the early '80s. They returned to Beatrice, where Taylor had previously lived, and had resumed filming porn not long before the killing.
Eventually, based on street rumors, investigators sought to interview Taylor - and it wasn't long before she was convinced that she was guilty of Wilson's murder, too.
According to transcripts contained in federal court records, Taylor told detectives that she "was told" she was at Wilson's apartment by the police who brought her to jail. They had "worked on bringing back little bits of memory," she said. She couldn't seem to remember anything accurate about Wilson's apartment, or what Wilson was wearing, or why she even went inside. But police told her not to worry.
"Let me try and help you refresh your memory," they would say, according to the transcript.
She ultimately confessed that she suffocated Wilson with a pillow while White raped her.
The investigation couldn't end there, however, because there was a problem: Neither Taylor nor White had type B blood, which was found at the scene. And so police believed there had to be more suspects involved.
Taylor's false recollections would help lead them to the others - whose own false memories and dreams then snowballed into a progressively wilder investigation.
First, Taylor mentioned offhandedly to police that "another boy" was with her and White during the crime. She picked a high school friend, Thomas Winslow, out of a photo lineup police presented to her. He didn't have type B blood either, but he was still arrested. The fourth suspect, Shelden, was targeted because she hung around the group. After interviews with police and Price, she also bought into the idea that she had repressed the memory of the crime, leading to her own false confession. She helped police wrangle a fifth suspect after dreaming that another man, Dean, was at Helen Wilson's that night, too.
After interviews with Price, Dean believed he had simply forgotten the violent assault too, according to the federal lawsuit.
The final suspect, Kathy Gonzalez, however, tried to hold her ground. She fell under suspicion because both Shelden and Dean said they dreamed about her at the scene, according to the lawsuit.
Gonzalez could have sworn she was just doing laundry on the night of Feb. 5, 1985. But in an interview with Price, the psychologist assured her that she had probably witnessed Wilson's murder - she just might not remember.
"Have you ever had memory problems before?" Price asked, according to a police transcript of the interview.
A befuddled Gonzalez assured him that, no, she didn't have a memory problem, at least besides memorizing lessons for school.
"How about something really terribly frightening, like something really had an impact emotionally?" he asked.
She said no. She could vividly remember traumatic things that had happened to her in the past. How could she forget a murder?
"I just don't understand," she said to him. "I mean, this isn't something I would not say anything about. I'm not saying I'm perfect here, and I've done my share of little sins. But we're talking about killing an old person."
She was arrested and charged anyway. Gonzalez, it turned out, also had type B blood, and so finally, the investigation came to an end.
Gonzalez pleaded no contest. So did Taylor's high school classmate, Winslow. Taylor, Dean and Shelden each pleaded guilty.
And then there was White.
He declared his innocence from the start. On the night he was arrested, his first question was, "Why am I a suspect in a case of murder?" He said he didn't know any Helen Wilson. He didn't know of any murder.
"You're having a hard time remembering," the detective interviewing him suggested, according to a transcript. "Maybe it's because you don't want to remember, huh? Could that be, Joe?"
No, he said repeatedly, "I was never there." The detectives threatened to test his blood and hair and semen to prove his guilt. White promised it would prove his innocence.
But that would take nearly two decades.
A court denied White's own motion for the DNA test, and it wasn't until 2007 that he successfully petitioned the Nebraska Supreme Court to go through with it. The test ultimately led to his and his five co-defendants' exoneration.
By then, the real suspect identified by DNA tests was dead. The semen and blood found at the scene matched Bruce Allen Smith, a one-time Beatrice resident who died in 1992.
Police now believe he acted alone.
This article was written by Meagan Flynn, a reporter for The Washington Post.