Mind Over Murder, a new six-part documentary series on HBO, has all the elements one would expect from a true crime show: a shocking and grotesque murder, a dubious and protracted police investigation and divergent theories as to what happened. There are first-person interviews and archival footage, criminal records and old newspaper headlines – but Mind Over Murder, from One Child Nation director Nanfu Wang, opens not at the scene of the crime, but within the long shadow of its aftermath. The initial talking heads are not witnesses but local actors in a play about how an investigation into the 1985 rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson led to the wrongful conviction of six people and divided the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska.
The play, conceived by Wang and developed by the Beatrice (pronounced bee-AT-tris) community theater using trial transcripts, court records and input from the all-local cast, confronts a painful rift within the town of about 12,500 people in rural south-eastern Nebraska. Thirty-years after Wilson was murdered, many in Beatrice, including Wilson’s family, still believed that the so-called Beatrice Six – convicted in 1989 and exonerated based on DNA evidence in 2009 – were guilty.
The play offered a chance for “everybody [to be] in the same room for the first time, people who hated each other”, Wang told the Guardian. And it modeled the central questions of the series: what makes people change their minds? For those who held on to the belief that six people had raped and murdered a grandmother in her apartment and left no DNA evidence, Wang wondered: “if there’s enough empathy that’s brought into the story, if they could step into the shoes of the ones who were in the story, would that challenge them to rethink?”
Wang first heard of the Beatrice Six, who collectively served 70 years in prison, through a 2017 New Yorker article which focused on how some of them still remembered scenes from the crime they did not commit. The case was a prime example of the plasticity of memory, the power of suggestion and the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, a leading cause of wrongful conviction. All except one of the six, Joseph White, had confessed to committing the crime or being in Wilson’s apartment during the murder – though, as Mind Over Murder details, the interrogation methods were suspect. (White, who always maintained his innocence, filed the 2009 civil rights lawsuit which led to their exoneration.)
As captured on video and in police records, lead investigator Burdette “Burt” Searcey and others from the Gage county sheriff’s office intimidated witnesses, supplied false or leading information to aid the confessions and convinced the group that their lack of memory of the murder was actually repressed trauma. (Searcey, a main subject of the series, maintains his methods were sound.) The group was particularly vulnerable to manipulation: all six were poor with little social clout. Some had suffered sexual or physical abuse, struggled with mental illness and intellectual challenges or faced the stigma of being bisexual in a small town in the 80s. Beatrice residents, especially Wilson’s family, were desperate for answers – for closure – after four years with no leads. There was little incentive for truth.
Wang did not enter Beatrice as a fan of true crime; she had not seen or heard any of the landmark series of the past decade and a half – The Jinx, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, the podcast Serial – before embarking on the project. “Initially what attracted me was not the crime story at all,” she said. “It was the psychological stories of why people believe in things, why people remember things, why memories stay with us and could be false.”
The Wilson case was still sensitive and traumatic for many in Beatrice, and mutated by a thousand different personal versions – as one community theater actor puts it: “Everybody knows somebody, everybody is connected to something somewhere and knows some extra piece of information that they think changes the narrative.” Building relationships with participants and townspeople took numerous off-camera meetings, with Wang explaining the concept: a series exploring memory and belief, about “something that really haunted the community for the past 35 years and there is no real sense of closure. What I wanted to do is to film everyone involved and then have them tell the story from their own experience,” she said. The goal would be to “provide clarity to what had happened and also give the community a sense of reconciliation and healing … to open up conversations and challenge people to rethink what they had believed”.
Over the course of six hours, Mind Over Murder establishes the facts of Wilson’s murder and the Beatrice Six’s wrongful conviction, as well as several emotional truths. There’s considerable time spent hearing out the subjects, the different relationships to a story: how it feels to lose one’s grandmother so shockingly, how difficult it is to accept another explanation than the one settled on for 20 years, how frustrating it is to have decades of focus on her death rather than her life. How it feels to lead an investigation now considered bunk. How it feels to lose a friend in the name of truth or doing one’s job. How it feels to be sent to prison, to be confused over your own role in a horrific crime, to not trust your memory. How it feels to be a townsperson whose taxes are footing the county’s $28m legal bill for wrongful conviction. How it feels to be a community theater actor harassed on Facebook for participating in a play that confronts the past. How it feels to be in the room for that play. How it feels to know something you believe is false and that you’re not ready to accept it yet.
What makes people change their minds? How do you shed decades-old beliefs? The case of the Beatrice Six is specific to one midwestern town, but Wang saw the conundrum of entrenched belief as a microcosm for the country at large. Watching it, I was reminded of the emotional logic behind inconsistent political stances, how people can know a belief is not sound yet hold it anyway – to protect a family member, a vision of the past, or their ego. “People in our larger society, on both sides, firmly believe one way or another and no matter what kind of facts or statements or evidence that you present to them and try to convince them,” said Wang, “they can’t take it in because they are so convinced by their own memory or belief or knowledge.”
Some beliefs harden in the face of contradictory information. But some change, as in Mind Over Murder’s remarkable final episode, in which the community theater stages the play for an audience including some of Wilson’s family and some of the Beatrice Six’s. That experience, and of making the project over several months in a small, curious town, “restored my faith in humanity, the possibility of change, of people coming together and reaching some reconciliation”, said Wang. The true crime elements, by the end, fade into the prospect of moving forward – not a whodunnit but a very human, slow and uneven “where do we go from here?”