True crime non-fiction can be exploitative and superficial but, at its finest, it investigates horror stories as a means of examining and understanding reality and humanity. That function is superbly carried out by Mind Over Murder, a six-episode HBO docuseries (June 20) from One Child Nation director Nanfu Wang that looks into a knotty 1980s murder in Nebraska (and the wrongful convictions it begat) and, as part of that inquiry, encourages a local theater to stage a production about the tale with a script made up of court transcripts and public record documents. In doing so, it proves a complex attempt at using art to determine and reveal the truth—and, also, to help bring about some measure of healing.
On Feb. 5, 1985, 68-year-old grandmother Helen Wilson was brutally raped and murdered in her one-bedroom apartment in Beatrice, Nebraska. Her death destroyed her family—grandson Shane Wilson calls her “the glue that held us all together”—and flummoxed police. Retired Beatrice PD officer Burt Searcy decided that he’d take a crack at the case, and he eventually stumbled upon local resident Lisa Podendorf, who claimed that on the night of the killing she’d seen Joseph White, Tom Winslow, and JoAnn Taylor pulling into Wilson’s driveway. Furthermore, she relayed that, on the following morning, Taylor told her that she and White had killed Wilson. Even in light of this bombshell, years went by with no productive action, until Searcy joined the Sheriff’s Department and revisited Podendorf’s admissions—a lead that led to the questioning of White, Winslow, and Taylor. The latter two soon copped to participating in the crime, and Taylor additionally brought up the name Cliff Shelden, a ne’er-do-well who immediately turned around and told officers that his own wife, Debra, had been present. When pressed, Debra admitted she’d been there, as had another man: James Dean.
Thus, five people wound up behind bars for a homicide to which—save for White, who always proclaimed his innocence—they’d all confess, as would a sixth woman, Kathy Gonzalez, who lived directly above the victim. Mind Over Murder’s first two episodes methodically lay out the way in which this sextet came to be prime suspects, itemizing how their assertions dovetailed with the evidence found at the scene of the crime through a comprehensive assembly of photographs, talking-head interviews, and footage from police interrogation videos. The pieces, it seemed, fit together, and Gage County attorney Richard Smith therefore had leverage to get these individuals to flip on each other by taking plea deals that would reduce their sentences. When all was said and done, White received life in prison, Wilson earned 50 years, Taylor got 40, and the other three netted a decade of incarceration.
That would have been the end of Mind Over Murder’s story if not for Doug Stratton, an appellate attorney who, in 2005, was referred to White, who continued to deny having anything to do with Wilson’s demise. Since no DNA analysis was done at the time of the original 1989 trial, Stratton persuaded new Gage County attorney Randy Ritnour to order 40-plus items tested, and the results were definitive: none of the samples collected from Wilson or her apartment came from the Beatrice Six. Moreover, thanks to the efforts of special investigator Tina Vath, a definitive match was identified: Bruce Allen Smith, who’d previously been eliminated as a suspect because his blood type didn’t correspond with that discovered at the scene. To say everyone was stunned is an understatement—including Wilson’s family and Searcy, who refused to believe that the Beatrice Six might have been erroneously convicted for the slaying. Swift exonerations and lengthy civil lawsuits followed.
At this point, Mind Over Murder transitions from a dissection of a seemingly open-and-shut case to an autopsy of a far more troubling mystery: how and why did five of these six individuals admit to a rape-murder they didn’t commit? The answers suggested by Wang involve mentally unwell and/or low-intelligence suspects, interrogation manipulation, untrustworthy bloodwork, and outright conspiracy, the last of which came via Richard Smith’s deliberate refusal to order available DNA testing, and to hide that decision from the defense. With the same patient thoroughness that she brought to her maiden installments, Wang spends the back half of her series explaining—through candid interviews with four of the Beatrice Six, and numerous lawyers, police officers, and more—the methods used to compel these men and women to provide false statements, which included feeding them details and then (courtesy of police psychologist Dr. Wayne Price) brainwashing them into thinking that their dreams about the murder were real.
“Wang spends the back half of her series explaining…the methods used to compel these men and women to provide false statements, which included feeding them details and then (courtesy of police psychologist Dr. Wayne Price) brainwashing them into thinking that their dreams about the murder were real.”
The idea that multiple people asserted that they did something that they didn’t do sounded (and still sounds) unbelievable, and yet the DNA evidence conclusively cleared the Beatrice Six. Consequently, Mind Over Murder ultimately becomes a fascinating study of the difficulty of accepting that long-held beliefs are actually erroneous—a process that turns out to be arduous for community members, Wilson’s relatives and Searcy, who remains unable to fully acknowledge that he got it wrong. In an age of rampant fake-news indoctrination, it’s an all-too-timely topic, and it transforms the series into a heartbreaking reminder that people often opt to believe that which is most comforting and familiar over concrete, indisputable facts.
A scene from Mind Over Murder
In its finale, Mind Over Murder presents the Beatrice Community Players Theater’s production of “Gage County, NE,” which is attended by many of its narrative’s real-life subjects. The social-media fury that greets this show is further proof that blind, irrational hostility is now a natural feature of the public discourse, contributing to a heightened atmosphere of fear, harassment and terror that only compounds our societal woes.
Nonetheless, if there’s something fundamentally dismaying about Wang’s gripping six-part affair, it manages to end on a hopeful note that speaks to art’s capacity for distilling and clarifying tangled tales and, in the process, opening eyes, hearts, and minds. It’s a mission that guides Beatrice’s actors as well as Wang, whose Mind Over Murder navigates a thicket of conflicting and irreconcilable specifics to arrive at its own complicated truths about denial, misconduct, prejudice, and the agony of unflattering introspection.
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