Cognitive Science · Crime · Human Rationality · Human Thinking

Remembering the murder you didn’t commit.

This post is a review of an article in the latest New Yorker Magazine titled “Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit.  Here is a link that article.   It is by Rachel Aviv and is in the June 19, 2017 issue of the New Yorker.  The subtitle of the article  is, “DNA evidence exonerated six convicted killers. So why do some of them recall the crime so clearly?”  All quotations in this post are from the New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles that seem to dovetail with the main idea of this book, which is that our highly touted human reason is actually not nearly as wonderful as was once thought.  In fact, books and articles that point out that human reason is actually full of biases and errors seem to be reaching cascade levels.  The idea that humans find it practically impossible to think rationally, at least as lone individuals, has become a huge issue in cognitive science.  I’ve written in several other places about the prevalence of bias and error in human thinking here and here and here.

The main point of the New Yorker article is that human memory is definitely not what we once thought it was.  Memory is not based on solid facts or truth or anything even remotely close.  The truth is that anyone, given the right circumstances, can be convinced absolutely that he has committed crimes he could never have committed.  And these people have strong and specific memories of doing things they absolutely never did.  And even when it is proved to them that they are innocent, and they accept the proof that their memories are false, their false memories still feel absolutely real. And these acknowledged false memories often persist for many years.

In the mid 1980’s, in the small Nebraska town of Beatrice, an old woman was raped and murdered.

 “Helen Wilson, who lived alone on the first floor, was raped and suffocated. The police found Type B blood from the intruder on Wilson’s mattress, wall, and underwear, and semen in her body. A grandmother, Wilson had played bingo a few nights a week and volunteered at the nursery of the Methodist church, a half block away. The police assumed that the culprit was someone lost in a religious fervor—there were several other churches nearby—or a homosexual, because Wilson had been raped anally. A psychological profile developed by the F.B.I. concluded that the murderer was a loner who’d had psychological counselling and collected pornography, and who was “odd and wimpy.”

After their intelligent and auspicious start, the Beatrice police soon went on to prove that they  were even more inept.  The best thing they could think to do to catch the murderer was to plant a “a voice-activated tape recorder inside a flowerpot at Wilson’s grave site, to track suspicious mourners, and then they did manage to ask the owner of an adult bookstore in Beatrice for a list of known homosexuals.”

And so the investigation went from bad to worse and finally the whole thing  was pretty much dropped as a cold case.  And then, a very amateur investigator decided he need to solve the case on his own and this made everything much worse if such a thing was possible.

“The Wilson case went cold. A young hog farmer named Burdette Searcey, a former officer with the Beatrice Police Department, told Wilson’s daughter, who ran a laundry where he had his clothes cleaned, that he would try to solve it. A short but bullish man who enjoyed watching crime shows on television, Searcey was unfulfilled by his work on the farm, and he began delving into the case as an unpaid private investigator. He interviewed people, he said, who “liked to roam around town, that didn’t have jobs, that were vagabonds, in my opinion.”  Two years after the crime, Searcey gave up farming and was hired as a deputy in the Gage County Sheriff’s Office, where he stayed on the Wilson case, even though the Beatrice Police Department was in charge. ”

From these stellar beginnings, the investigation went from farce to lunacy.  The story begins with Ada Jo Ann Taylor, a young, uneducated, sexually damaged, young woman, originally form North Carolina.  Taylor was one of the first to be arrested for the murder of Helen Wilson:

“Taylor confessed to the woman’s murder in 1989 and for two decades believed that she was guilty. She served more than nineteen years for the crime before she was pardoned. She was one of six people accused of the murder, five of whom took pleas; two had internalized their guilt so deeply that, even after being freed, they still had vivid memories of committing the crime. In no other case in the United States have false memories of guilt endured so long. The situation is a study in the malleability of memory: an implausible notion, doubted at first, grows into a firmly held belief that reshapes one’s autobiography and sense of identity.”

Again, the main point of the article is that the ways most humans try to formulate truth, try to figure out what has actually happened, and even figure out who they actually are is woefully inadequate.  One of of the main points of the article is that the mind is not like a large house where memories get mislaid, and where we can search and most likely  re-find them if we just rummage through all of that stuff for long enough.  This theory, once believed by many psychologists, is no longer seen as accurate.  As Aviv says,

“In 1890, in “The Principles of Psychology,” William James wrote, “We make search in our memory for a forgotten idea, just as we rummage our house for a lost object.” But James’s image of memories as discrete packets, deposited in a physical space, is obsolete. If memory is like a house, it is one that is constantly under construction. As the cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus put it, “Memory is born anew every day.” We piece together fragments of recollection, shaped by beliefs and impressions, and unwittingly embellish and invent our own pasts.”

Human memory, Aviv says, is never reliable.   Humans convince themselves or can be induced to remember almost anything.  As this article points out again and again, many people feel guilty for reasons they don’t understand, they have free floating  guilt that is  looking for some justification for its existence.  For this reason these people are open to suggestions that they have actually committed crimes like murder and rape; they feel so guilty that surely they must have done something to feel this way.

And when people who already feel guilty for something are hauled in by random police dragnets and accused of raping or murdering someone, they tend to quickly invent vague recollections in the darker parts of their minds. Maybe, they think, they actually did do the thing they are accused of.  And then, as they are questioned more and more, they tend to internalize the details of the crime the police accuse them of and begin to think that maybe  they actually did do these things.  And before long they are sure these implanted memories are true memories.  And these fake memories are accompanied by astonishing amounts of exact, physical detail.  Like how certain things they had never felt before, felt on their hands, how they smelled, or how they looked in exact detain.

And very often there are psychologists who are involved in the actual implanting of false memories through the questions they ask.   Back in the 1980’s, when the theories of Freud were still in vogue, most psychologists believed that humans regularly suppressed ugly and revolting and embarrassing  memories into their underground minds and then,  as the theory went, if people only could make these unconscious memories conscious, all of their neuroses would disappear and they would be healed.  So psychologists and psychiatrists encouraged their patients to do “memory work” and recover those lost, suppressed memories.

And it wasn’t long before these psychologists were hypnotizing their patients to help them recover lost memories.  This often involved helping female patients remember sexual abuse by fathers, uncles or brothers. And then, since there was a highly publicized  case of a patient who remembered being forced by her parents to attend satanic rituals as a child, these psychologists  found that their own patients, with just a few suggestions from themselves, remembered all sorts of grizzly details about satanic rituals and devil worship that their own parents had forced them to participate in.

I was first introduced these nutty ideas of recovering memories of satanic rituals by two  articles in the New Yorker by Lawrence Wright way back in the early 1990’s.  Wright, a New Yorker staff writer  completely discredited the idea in two articles called “Remembering Satan.” This series began in the May 17, 1993 issue of the New Yorker.    Here is a link to part 1. of this article.  Wright presented overwhelming evidence that the whole idea of memories of  satanic rituals was not real, but were instead implanted in patients minds by the psychologists themselves.

Unfortunately a lot of damage had been done by this time.  Many parents had their lives destroyed by children who were convinced by their psychologists that they had been forced as children to participate in Satanic rituals.  Thirty years later, this sounds totally nuts, but it really happened to a lot of people.

Wright’s article was just the beginning of what was to become a far reaching dismissal of many of Freud’s doctrines.  And there were other really excellent books and articles  on the dangerous and unsound  techniques of revealing hidden memories.

The idea that patients could have memories that were totally false, but which felt so very real to them, was the subject of several more books in the 1990s.  Lawrence Wright went on to write a best selling book  based on his New Yorker articles called Remembering Satan.   And then Fredric Crews, a well known Freud debunker, published two more  famous articles on the subject titled The Revenge of the Repressed  in the New York Review of books.  Crews also went on to turn his articles into a very good book called The Memory Wars.

If you are interested in reading this interesting psychiatric history, and it is really quite good stuff,  but you don’t have a subscription to the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books (both require a subscription to read articles in their archives), I recommend just buying the two books, Remembering Satan and The Memory Wars.

The old New Yorker archives are just photo copies of the actual magazines and are pretty much impossible to read anyway.  Actually in my opinion, not worth reading at all.

Back in the early nineties when I first read Wright’s New Yorker articles, this was all pretty new and exciting stuff.  I remember that when I first discover the articles, I was up in the Colorado Mountains living in a tiny one room trailer, building our new home above Salida, CO.  This was such riviting reading that all carpentry work on the new house was suspended for two days while I read the articles.  My wife was not happy to find she had to work alone for two days.

One reason all this was so riveting to me, at the time,  was that my super rational, lawyer brother was currently telling me tales about an attractive female coworker.  This woman was telling him all about how her psychologist had revealed her repressed memories of satan worship and devil cults which she had been forced to participate in by her parents where she was a small child, but which she had repressed.  Her psychologist had hypnotized her and, voila, it all came tumbling out.  Both my brother and her friend accepted it all hook line and sinker.

The friend was convinced that this repressed memory  had totally screwed her up mentally and this was why she had so many neurotic problems today.  And  my brother, who believed every word of this, was convinced she could only recover if he sponsored this neurotic friend with cold cash for more psychological sessions and also for living expenses, since her condition made it impossible for her to keep a job.  And since my brother is a pretty good guy he really was convinced.  Unfortunately his moral and monetary support of her went on for years and years.  Whenever I tried to tell my brother he should read this great article in the New Yorker, he just refused to hear me.

Well, back to the New Yorker article under discussion, “Remembering the Murder you Didn’t Commit.”

One of the real life characters in this article, is very warm and sincere, but old fashioned psychiatrist who is always called on by the Nebraska small-tow-police when they need some psychiatric help.  This psychologist, Willian Price, has all the old Freudian ideas about repression and the value of memory recovery down cold.    As Aviv tells it,

“The sheriff’s staff called Price and asked him to come to the jail to help Dean [one of the six suspects in the murder case] calm down. In a long session with Price, seventeen days after his arrest, Dean began crying and said that, as a child, he had been beaten by his father and his brother-in-law. Price proposed to Dean that these childhood experiences had created a fear of violence, which caused him to repress his memories of the crime. Price relied on the theory that some events are so traumatic that they are retrieved only through flashbacks and dreams, a notion that became so fashionable in the nineteen-eighties and nineties that it led to one of the most shameful episodes in the history of psychotherapy: patients, eager to please their therapists, engaged in “memory work,” which produced claims of convoluted forms of abuse, like infant incest and satanic ritual rape—memories they later disavowed.”

Later Eli Chosen, a Nebraska psychiatrist called Price the Rosetta Stone in the murder case.  As Aviv tells it:

“Eli Chesen, the Nebraska psychiatrist, told the jury that Taylor, Dean, and Shelden suffered from Stockholm syndrome. In forty years of practice, it was the first time he’d seen the condition. He described it as “a brutal kind of bonding, psychological bonding, to someone who has total control over you.” He called Price the “Rosetta stone” in the case: “Price implanted his own belief system into his captive/patient,” he wrote in a report.

The town of Beatrice had only a few psychologists, and Price was given a nearly occult kind of authority, as if he were the only person who had access to the mysteries of the human mind. It is not uncommon for law-enforcement officials, even judges, to suspend common sense in the presence of a scientific expert, whose superior training lends his personal opinions the weight of truth. “

This article in the New Yorker is a long, winding tale that tells the story of injustice dealt to six people in this small Nebraska town.  In the end, six people were arrested for the murder of Helen Wilson.  People who had nothing to do with it and who had never heard of Helen Wilson before their arrests.  Joseph White was the first person arrested, mainly because he was gay and associated with many of the more sexually confused people in Beatrice who the cops accused of the heinous crime of  wandering around at two or three am on the town square.

Then Ada Taylor was arrested mostly because she was White’s friend.  Each of these suspects was talked to by the local psychologist, Wayne Price, who I described above.   Price was also a part time local cop and was highly respected locally.  None of the locals seemed to find it odd that the local psychologist was also a wanna-be cop.

As soon as Price saw White and Taylor, he “helped” them to delve into their deepest selves to find memories of the night Elizabeth was killed.  A Price asked whether they remembered this or that detail, White and Taylor  began to remember the details as if they had happened to them.  And when they were asked to delve even deeper and remember who else was at the murder scene, they began to remember other names and faces.  And of course, these were the next people the cops arrested as suspects.

As each person was arrested, he was also interviewed by Price who helped them to delve deeply into their deepest selves to identify other culprits.  Several of the original suspects  found new suspects in dreams and flash backs induced by Price.  All of the suspects were soon convinced that they themselves had had a part in the murder of Helen Wilson.   They could soon remember vivid details of how they had participated.  Taylor could remember and still remembers 30 years later the feel of the pillow she used to suffocate Helen Wilson with, even though such a thing had never happened.  Still, today, even though she now knows that she had no part in the murder, that memory is still vivid in her mind.

In the end all 6 suspects, were convicted by a jury and sent to prison for many, many years each.  Oddly enough, no one thought to mention the fact that even though the killer had type B blood, as evidenced by the copious samples of blood and semen he left on the mattress where the victim was found, only one of the suspects, a women, had type B blood.

Joseph White, who was the one who had supposedly raped and killed Helen Wilson, was sentenced to life in prison.  Jo Ann Taylor was sent to the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, to serve a sentence of forty years.   Neither had type B blood.

“James Dean was sentenced to ten years, but a year after his confession he began to wonder if he really was guilty. Away from the presence of Searcey, he said, “It came to me, you know—what did I do?”

“Shelden never protested her punishment, either. Her guilt became a central fact of her identity, and she excelled at being a prisoner. After being granted trusty status, she was allowed outside the prison walls to weed the grounds. “When they pulled that gate open, I couldn’t move,” she told me. “I was too scared to go out.”

In the end all six of the suspects received long sentences to Nebraska prisons.

But finally in 2001 something changed.   “In 2001, Nebraska passed a statute allowing convicted felons to seek DNA testing, and Joe White filed a motion to request DNA testing.  “White tried to persuade Winslow, who had been sentenced to fifty years, to petition for DNA testing, too. For more than a decade, Winslow was regularly raped in prison. “I just shut down,” he told me. “I was just trying to maintain.” He was grateful for small acts of benevolence: when the warden allowed him to attend his father’s funeral, he marvelled that the guards let him stay a little more than an hour.”

It took a long time to get the DNA tested but finally, seven years later, in 2008 the DNA testing was completed.  And the tests “excluded both White and Winslow as the source of the semen at the crime scene. When James Dean’s DNA was examined, the results showed that he could not have been the source, either. All the DNA from both the blood and the semen had come from an unknown male.”

Then someone finally woke up in the Nebraska Attorney Generals office and decided to use DNA testing to find the person who had actually committed the crime.  “The Nebraska attorney general’s office assembled a task force to follow up on the leads in the original case files. After two months, it found a match for the DNA: Bruce Allen Smith, a juvenile delinquent whose grandmother had lived in the building. The probability that he was not the lone source of the semen and blood in the apartment was nine hundred and fifty-one quintillion to one. Smith had died of aids, in Oklahoma, seven years after the crime.”

“In early 2009, an assistant attorney general announced that the six people were innocent “not beyond a reasonable doubt but beyond all doubt.” It was the largest DNA exoneration involving false confessions in the history of the American judicial system. Taylor, White, and Winslow were promptly released. (Dean, Gonzalez, and Shelden were already out of prison, having been freed after five years.) The attorney general’s office encouraged them to file applications to be pardoned.

Joseph White decided to sue the country for such an egregious breach of his civil rights.  Unfortunately he died in an accident before the suit could be decided, but the remaining five suspects continued his suit and won it.  They were awarded more than thirty million dollars, four times the county’s annual tax revenue.  So far it doesn’t look like there is any hope that any of the accused will see any of that money since the there is no way the country can come up with it.  And the citizens of the county believe almost to the last person that all the suspects were guilty as charged.  None of the counties residents seem to be able to reconcile themselves to the fact that maybe they actually do owe that money to the people who were unjustly tried and sent to prison.

All of the county residents are working on alternatives to paying what are told they owe the accused.

“Last winter, at a town meeting at Valentino’s Primavera Room, a restaurant three blocks from Helen Wilson’s apartment, forty people, all white, most of them graying men, tried to strategize. One man suggested civil disobedience: refuse to pay property taxes. “Show you got a backbone and stand up straight!” he shouted. Others suggested ending funding for pre-K education, cutting government jobs, taxing groceries, ceasing road maintenance, or quadrupling property taxes for farmers, a proposal that residents said would make them move away.”

To date all of the town and the counties residents remain firmly convinced the six accused were and are totally guilty.

And most of the five accused suspects that are still alive still feel like they are guilty.  At least that is what their memories still tell them.

This is a much better article than my summary conveys.  I found this real life murder mystery absolutely mesmerizing reading. Rachel Aviv is a great writer.  Better than almost any fictional mystery writer I have read.  Maybe Dostoevsky was a little better.

Post by Fred Hanselmann


Rudbeckia in Glacier National Park





















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