False Memories and False Confessions – NPR Discusses the Case of the Beatrice Six

In 2009, six individuals from Beatrice, Nebraska were exonerated for the crime of murdering an elderly woman in 1985 after new DNA evidence was brought to light proving their innocence. Even so, many of the members of the “Beatrice Six” still report having memories of committing the crime the night it happened. In a recent report from NPR’s ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, host Audie Cornish talked with The New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv about why this may be.

During their discussion, they talk about what happened at the scene of the crime. Police could find no leads as to who could have be the perpetrator despite large amounts of physical evidence left behind. An informant implicated JoAnn Taylor and Joseph White as suspects, who were arrested. Neither could remember the events of the night due to being intoxicated and were convinced of their wrongdoing by police threats.

After being told to recount who else was responsible for the crime through dreams by psychologist Wayne Price, Taylor and White eventually implicated Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathy Gonzales, and Debra Shelden as accomplices. All were eventually tried and convicted for crimes they never committed.

Aviv goes on to explain why Doctor Price asked them to do this, talking about how the idea of recovering repressed traumatic memories through things like dreaming was a popular idea in psychology at the time. Calling it an “epidemic”, she goes on to say it was quickly discredited after reaching its most pervasive form.

Despite not having committed the crime, two of the Beatrice Six still to this day report having vivid memories of what happened that night. Aviv then talks about the idea of implanting false memories into people and how it shapes who they are, planning to expand on the topic in a future issue of The New Yorker.

For JoAnn Taylor and Joseph White, this is what happened. Despite not having committed any crimes, they were convinced that they had by the police’s detailed descriptions of what could have happened, implicating four unrelated parties based on poor advice from a psychologist.

At the time of their release, the true culprit of the crime was caught based on the same DNA evidence that freed the Beatrice Six. The five surviving members (White died in 2011) are currently engaged in a lawsuit against Gage County, Nebraska over false imprisonment and police misconduct.

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