Memory is a funny thing. You can remember a lot. The exact spot in the road where you were driving the last time you heard a particular song. The jingle of some dumb advertisement from twenty years ago. Your old telephone number. A street address for a house that doesn’t exist anymore A random coworker you haven’t seen in years. The party where some drunk kids tried to rape you. That time you smothered an old woman to death.
Some of those things probably didn’t happen. Especially not that last one. But smothering an old woman to death is exactly what Ada JoAnn Taylor plead guilty to doing in 1989. She and five others spent decades in prison only to be exonerated by DNA. Only one of the six insisted that he wasn’t present for the rape and murder of Helen Wilson.
A combination of weak and abused “perpetrators,” police officers who weren’t bothered by conflicting accounts of the crime, and a psychologist encouraging the accused to remember what happened led to a terrible miscarriage of justice.
James Dean was arrested the next day. It was his twenty-fifth birthday, and he and a team of construction workers had just finished demolishing houses in Lincoln, fifty miles from Beatrice. He was booked into the Gage County jail. A guard wrote that he was “pacing, crying, talking to himself,” waving his arms and exclaiming, “I’ve been arrested on something I know nothing about.”
The sheriff’s staff called Price and asked him to come to the jail to help Dean 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.
Although at first Dean denied that he was involved, Price wrote that by the end of the session Dean “was doubting the veracity of his own statements.”
Six days after Dean’s session with Price, he confessed to Searcey that he had been an accomplice to Wilson’s murder. “I feel that I remembered it in my sleep,” he said. “I had a memory loss, which just kind of just—I didn’t have no idea about none of this stuff.” He seemed fascinated by his new understanding of his own mental processes.
Joseph White was the only suspect who tried to prove that he was innocent. He requested DNA testing, but his motion was denied. At his trial, for rape and murder, the only evidence against him was his co-defendants’ confessions.
White years later would be able to get the DNA testing done which proved that someone else had committed the crime.
While this case is rather extreme in that even the allege perpetrators couldn’t remember properly, it serves as an important warning. Eye witnesses can have critical effects on cases but it is clear that it is all too easy for their testimony to become corrupted or be utterly false simply because they remember something that didn’t happen.