When murder is just a memory

Kim Drake watches a new Storyville documentary on false confessions and memory distrust syndrome.

It’s Iceland, 27 January 1974: Gudmundur Einarsson disappears.

On 19 November 1974 a second man, Geirfinnur Einarsson, disappears.

12 December 1975:  A man, Saevar Ciesielski, is arrested. He tells the police that an argument had ended in Gudmundur’s death.

Saevar’s girlfriend, Erla Bolladottir, is arrested the following day. After questioning, she reports the interviewer suggesting she’d witnessed Saevar’s involvement. Police were also interested in knowing whether Saevar knew anything about what happened to Geirfinnur Einarsson. The body has never been found to this day.

In the end, Saevar and three other men supposedly involved: Kristjan Vidarsson, Tryggi Leifsson, and Albert Skaftason were held in custody for Gudmundur’s murder. Saevar and Kristjan also made a statement that they were present when Geirfinnur died.

Despite subsequent claims of innocence and statement retractions by the accused, as well as a complete lack of evidence on the part of the police, in total six individuals ended up convicted of the murder of both Gudmundur and Geirfinnur.

On reviewing diary entries made by the men whilst in prison, however, it emerged that maybe the confessions were unreliable. The heavy-handed nature of the investigation materialised: the six didn’t have access to legal representation, and they were interrogated many more times than the police reports said. Saevar, for example, was interviewed 180 times for 340 hours, and spent 615 days in solitary. Erla was interrogated 105 times and spent 241 days in solitary. Tryggvi was kept in solitary for 655 days. The police destroyed them psychologically.

Dylan Howitt’s masterful Storyville charts the account of one of the most substandard, and damaging to those accused, criminal investigations in history. The programme is well directed, and I especially liked Erla Bolladottir’s involvement. Her narrative in her own words, as well as the participation of the children of the accused, makes what happened especially poignant to the viewer. The public got to glimpse how broken Saever became, as a result of his failed attempts to clear his name, and the toll this investigation took on all of them.

If there was any weakness at all, it was that early on in the programme, before any sense that the confessions could be false is brought to light, it manages to conjure up this image of Saevar’s criminality and potential guilt. The narrator talks about Saevar and the others lying to the police. Yet, this isn’t true: they didn’t purposely lie to the police, but were coerced into memory distortions through a flawed police investigation. The six had problematic backgrounds, and they weren’t well educated, but such factors – as well as being young – are probably what exacerbated their susceptibility to police coercion in the first place.

As the documentary continues though, my initial concern about its direction was overturned. Forensic Psychologist Gisli Gudjonsson’s contribution to the case and programme is pivotal in re-directing discussion away from the idea of the men lying, and towards the notion that the six were in fact extremely vulnerable. It transpires that the police found gaps in their memories and worked on them until they began to think: maybe something did happen and I don’t remember.

This case is of utmost importance and interest, because it highlights how easily ordinary people can end up very vulnerable. Notwithstanding advances in police interviewing techniques, the risk of unreliable confessions and memories from general population individuals remains an issue to this day, given that a large proportion of vulnerable detainees are still not identified in custody and given the protection they need. 

- Dr Kim E. Drake is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Swansea University. Read her article on false confessions in our archive, along with our interview with Gisli Gudjonsson.

Watch the programme now on BBC iPlayer.

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