Director Nanfu Wang knows that in order to empathize with the Beatrice Six, viewers must first understand the subject’s motivations and unique backstory. That’s the challenge at the heart of the story of HBO’s Mind Over Murder docuseries about a group of Beatrice, Nebraska residents who were falsely convicted of murdering 68-year-old grandmother Helen Wilson in 1985.
Mind Over Murder largely revolves around the Beatrice Six, comprised of Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean, and Kathy Gonzalez. But the docuseries never loses sight of honoring the story’s first victim: Helen Wilson, whose brutal rape and murder set off a chain of events that would henceforth become synonymous with the once sleepy town of Beatrice, Nebraska.
That’s why Wang decided to tell the story in chronological order. First from the perspective of Wilson’s family, and then from the perspective of detective-turned-Gage County Sheriff’s Deputy Burt Searcey, who vowed to solve Helen Wilson’s murder no matter what it took.
Only after all of that backstory is established do we begin to understand who the Beatrice Six really are — because just about everything that the residents of Beatrice thought they knew about those six people was turned upside down when in 2009, 20 years after they were convicted in 1989, DNA evidence exonerated them and determined the true identity of Wilson’s assailant to be Bruce Allen Smith.
One of the hardest parts to swallow? Smith had been ruled out early on in the investigation when a faulty blood test came back as a false negative.
“If one step didn’t take that wrong turn – if Bruce Allen Smith’s blood wasn’t tested wrong — it wouldn’t have happened this way,” Wang told MovieMaker. “Every single detail, to me, was surprising.”
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But rather than beginning the six-part docuseries with the ultimate outcome we know today, Wang decided to walk us through the information in more or less the same way that the public learned it back in the 1980s. That way, it’s easier to understand not only how the Beatrice Six were led into false confessions, but why it’s so hard for Beatrice residents who have grown up with this case to change their long-held beliefs about who did it.
“I think the most effective way… to tell the story is to understand why everyone made the decision they made, to understand where they came from,” Wang said. “Why so many of the townspeople still believe that [the Beatrice Six are guilty]; Why Burt Searecy still believes that; why the other deputy sheriffs, the police officers, the jailers, they believe that. And if we don’t get into their point of view, to understand exactly what they went through, to hear that perspective, then it would be just a very reductive criticism in a way that wouldn’t open people’s minds.”
In the end, changing people’s minds comes down to empathy.
“For people to reach an agreement, to reconcile with something, first they have to understand,” Wang said. “They have to understand why The Six confessed. And a lot of people would say, ‘I would have never confessed, even if they threatened me with the death penalty. I just wouldn’t.’ But that is not true. So in order for people to think, ‘I could be one of them, or I could have maybe made the mistake Burt Searcrey made, I could have been Tom Winslow who admitted that I was there at some point’… the only way is to hear their journey.”
Mind Over Murder premieres Monday, June 20 on HBO and HBO Max at 10 p.m.
Main Image: A bulletin board of photos and clippings from Helen Wilson’s murder pictured in Mind Over Murder, courtesy of HBO