Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit – New Yorker Magazine

Beatrice, Nebraska was the location for what was probably the most extraordinary case of proven false memory in America’s history: Six individuals confessed to a murder that scientific evidence demonstrated they could not have committed.  Jailed for up to 20 years, they were set free in 2009. A jury has determined that those still alive are owed 30 million dollars in compensation by the county authorities.  Since that is four times the annual tax revenue, Gage County is now considering bankruptcy.


When Ada JoAnn Taylor is tense, she thinks she can feel the fabric of a throw pillow in the pads of her fingers. Taylor has suffered from tactile flashbacks for three decades. She imagines herself in a small apartment in Beatrice, Nebraska. She is gripping the edges of a pillow, more tightly than she means to, and suffocating a sixty-eight-year-old widow. “I feel for her,” Taylor told me recently. “She was my grandmother’s age.”

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.

Eli Chesen, a Nebraska psychiatrist who evaluated Taylor and her co-defendants after their release, told me, “They still believed to varying degrees that they had blood on their hands.” He compared the case with the Jonestown Massacre, in 1978, when a cult leader persuaded more than nine hundred people to commit suicide in Guyana. “You have a group of people who are led to share the same delusion, at the same time, with major consequences,” he said. “Their new beliefs superseded their previous life experiences, like paper covering a rock.”

…. 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.


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