State Seeks Pardons for Defendants Wrongfully Convicted in 1985 Nebraska Murder

"I have no doubt that we had the right people," said Jerry DeWitt, who was Gage County Sheriff at the time of the investigation. "As far as the one who raped her, his DNA showed up. As far as the actual murder, I think they were all involved."

"A criminal can say anything he wants, whether it's true or not," DeWitt said. "Are you going to believe a cop of 43 years or a drug addict?" (DeWitt says when he arrested Gonzalez in McCormick's she said, "I've been dreading this day for the last four years.")

Suppressed Memories, Intimidated Suspects Involved in Confession

But the case files, released by the attorney general's office, show a combination of unorthodox interrogation techniques, outdated forensics and defendants who were susceptible to intimidation and manipulation all contributed to the apparent wrongful convictions.

In interviews, several of the Beatrice defendants now say they were so frightened by the prospect of the death penalty and what appeared to be overwhelming evidence against them that they confessed to avoid execution. "We were threatened with our lives," said James Dean. "When you're life's on the line, you do things that normal people wouldn't do."

Several defendants were told they probably repressed their memories of the murder. They were encouraged to remember, sometimes through their dreams. Debra Shelden, one of the defendants, has said she initially "blocked out" her memories but remembered much of the night of the murder -- including the fact that Gonzalez was there -- from her dreams. According to her pardon application, Shelden, who could not be reached for comment, continues to claim she witnessed the attack.

Another defendant, Ada JoAnn Taylor, changed her version of events several times in interviews with police. Taylor, who has a history of drug abuse and mental illness, said in a recent interview that there were times when she "doubted" whether or not she was involved in the murder and ultimately confessed out of fear and because the police "kept badgering me so hard."

Price, the police psychologist, had treated Taylor in the past as a private therapist and diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder. Price did not return a call for comment.

"I've never seen anything like this in 25 years," said Jerry Soucie, a lawyer with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy who is representing Tom Winslow, another co-defendant. "I can't believe this."

It's hard to argue with a confession. For many jurors, it defies common sense to think that someone would admit to a crime they did not commit. But according to the Innocence Project, about one quarter of documented wrongful convictions that have been cleared by DNA evidence were the result of false confessions or guilty pleas.

Saul Kassin, a distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies false confessions, said the Beatrice Six case fits the pattern of other false confession cases.

He said defendants who are easily worn down and influenced by police often hit a breaking point, after which they will confess to escape from the interrogation.

"What happens is the person feels trapped by the weight of the evidence. They start to look for a way out. As soon as they show a sign of weakness, the interrogator is trained to swoop in and make minimizing remarks," he said. "All of that is a way of disarming the person into thinking a confession is no big deal."

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