There are many reasons to confess to a crime, usually through a plea deal, for something they did not commit. Most do it after an evaluation of risks. They consider the evidence, the lawyers, who the judge is, the laws, whether a death penalty is involved, their ability for they or their family to withstand trial, or their own personal feelings of guilt.
Rarely, but yet astonishingly, some do it out of that guilt, but for crimes they never committed, yet wholly and honestly believe they did. Why?
The Beatrice Six
It seems almost impossible, that someone would earnestly claim they committed a murder or rape they were never part of, or had no knowledge of. For that reason, I ask that you read the New Yorker’s remarkable story of the Beatrice Six. Six individuals with loose, vague connections, who, all deeply broken people, morphed their memory to that of a criminal’s.
As you’ll find in the article, none of the first 5 who were gathered for their “involvement” in the crime matched the blood at the crime scene (An elderly woman was rape and suffocated. Blood and seamen was left at the scene). There was no evidence that 6 were there, but a psychologist in a small town with respect and authority with the Sheriff’s Department, who did not have many peers to challenge him, pushed these inviduals to think harder, to think of their guilt, their wickedness, and how they must have something to offer. Give it enough time and enough pressure, you’ll be bound to hget something.
Of course, all of these were broken people living in an even more broken time. Many were gay, lesbian or bisexual, living in communities that saw that as evidence of guilt (in fact, they searched for homosexual people specifically, interviewing hundreds without any reason). They were abused as children, had middling, if any job, and has unsupportive families.
These people suffered their entire lives, and when someone with great authority and kindness offered them a way to confess and contribute, their minds bent.
At first, she told Searcey that the rape had occurred in a white, single-story house with a porch, much like the house that she had lived in as a young child. But, she said, “everybody kept telling me that it was an apartment. Then it dawned on me that it wasn’t a house.” During the rape, she could hear herself screaming, “Stop, don’t, it hurts, leave her be.” She heard White say, “JoAnn, you know you deserve it,” but it sounded like her stepfather’s voice. She told Searcey, “I don’t know if it’s the connection between the past rape and what I’m seeing at the time, but that’s what runs—what I hear. I hear it as clear as a bell.”
After seeing photographs of the crime scene, Taylor developed a new theory: she was Wilson’s protector. She said that she had picked up a pillow from the couch and held it over Wilson’s face. It was an act of compassion. “I know with my rape my father’s face has haunted me all my life,” she said. “I didn’t want her to see the face that would haunt her.” But she was so agitated that she pressed too hard. She said, “I did not realize I was killing her.”
The Unfragile Mind
You may be familiar with the Central Park Five who each confessed to be an accomplish to the rape that, supposedly one of them committed. They were mistreated and abused. Under threats and fear they confessed but were later exonerated, like the Beatrice Six, because of DNA evidence.
“Simply wearing suspects down is another issue: At some point, a given suspect will say anything just to make the immediate discomfort stop. “Why don’t they beat people anymore?” asks Don Thompson. “It’s not because they’re particularly enlightened now. It’s because the psychological coercion is so much more effective.”
The truth is, the mind doesn’t break that easily. It will do what it needs to do to survive. We humans have committed evil, irreproachable actions against each other. But, after they continue to live, with scars and nightmares, they aren’t mindless. In order for the mind to continue to exist in the face of such pain and evil it can alter our memory, or what we believe to be our memory, and our perception of others. Suddenly our captors can be our saviors, or the evils others are committing are due to some crime we committed (or it is not so evil at all). I say this with melancholy, but the mind is incredibly adapt at surviving in the worst conceivable conditions.
Research shows that the people most susceptible to false memories have a tendency toward dissociation, a coping mechanism reported by victims of sexual violence: they learn to detach from the moment, to feel as if they were not fully there. Taylor, who still refers to the theory of repression that Price taught her, told me, “My memory problems began when I was raped.” She said that her confidence in her memory deteriorated further when her mother refused to acknowledge that the abuse had occurred. During the civil trial, even as Taylor listened to all the evidence exonerating her, she occasionally became so distressed that she thought, I’m a bad person. I had to have done it.
There is no known number of Americans who fit into this category, who have, against actual fact, confessed to, believing it to be true, that they were guilty of a crime. If I were to be able to say how many, that would be to good to be true. One of the deep horrifying truths of this phenomenon is that we’ll never know because those who are innocent but believe themselves not to be will not come forward.
One of the Beatrice Six sadly was sexually assaulted in prison for a decade. Another, Joseph White, who was alone in believing in and declaring his innocence, died before the courts ruled that the justice system violated his civil rights. Others, like Ada JoAnn Taylor, know they didn’t commit the murder now, well, they know the evidence says so, but they still dream about it, reliving the horrible “memories” that haunted them for years. The crime never happened, but these people have never stopped suffering from guilt, the feeling and knowing that they were awful, damaged, irreparable people.
And it’s hard to blame them. If I suffered so much from the hands of others, as a child molested by my family, as a pregnant, homeless teen by my fleeing boyfriend, as a vulnerable adult by the Sheriff’s department, I’d want to believe it was at least, on some level, deserved. Because if it wasn’t, and it wasn’t, then this could happen to any innocent person regardless of the life they led and the choices they made. Unfortunately, we live in that world.
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