Nebraska Town Won’t Let Go of False Memory of Murder

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The New Yorker examines a perplexing criminal prosecution 30 years ago in Beatrice, Neb., that concluded with six people confessing to a 1985 rape and murder that they did not commit. Each of the “Beatrice Six” served prison terms before they were exonerated when DNA testing of blood and semen showed that the victim, Helen Wilson, 68, had been attacked by a teenager who lived in her building. He was not among the six and had never been a suspect in the case. (He had died of AIDS by the time he was implicated.)

A local psychologist, Wayne Price, was largely responsible for drawing false-memory confessions out of the six, who were uneducated down-and-outers. They were implicated by a young hog farmer, Burdette Searcey, a former local cop who made it his mission to solve the Wilson murder. He cobbled together the six suspects to fit his narrative and the physical evidence. They were pardoned after serving as many as 19 years in prison when DNA evidence identified the killer in 2009. Yet in the minds of many Beatrice residents, the six are still guilty. The local county sheriff, Millard Gustafson, says, “The six had to know something about it, or had to have been there—that’s the sense that the public has.”  And Searcey considers himself a hero. “We’ve got a-hundred-per-cent backing from the public in Beatrice,” he says. “I am loved by my people in this community.”

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