Repressed memories? Supernatural intervention? Or simply a guilty conscience?
Something made John Reed “suddenly” remember after 20 years that he saw Franklin Duane Crawford kill Pearl Altman as they sat near the shore of the Allegheny River at Kittanning Park in October 1971.
Reed’s recovered memory of the night Altman died was the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s case against Crawford, but because Reed’s memory was jogged by seeing a woman who resembled Altman and not pried out of his unconscious mind through counseling or therapy, the jury never got a chance to hear from an expert witness who examined Reed and believed there was a good chance that he was mistaken about what he thought he remembered.
Crawford is serving out his 10-to-20 year sentence for second degree murder and his case stands as an example of how poorly the medical and legal worlds intersect.
Pearl Altman’s body was found beneath the Kittanning Park dam on the evening of October 22, 1971. The autopsy revealed some head injuries, bruising and some cuts, and ruled that she had died by drowning. Although several people saw Crawford and Altman together that night, there were no witnesses to any foul play (besides Reed), no direct evidence pointing toward Crawford as a killer and no arrests were made for two decades.
The case remained cold as a grave until one day between 1989 and 1991 — he wasn’t sure what date it was exactly — when Reed and his wife were at a supermarket in Leechburg, Pennsylvania. At the store, Reed saw a woman who resembled Altman and remarked on the fact to his wife. She responded that she knew the woman and that she wasn’t related to Altman.
Afterward, Reed, who admitted abusing alcohol and psychedelic drugs, was lying in bed when he awoke to see a “mist” in his room. He heard a voice saying, “John, you know what happened. Please tell.”
After that, Reed told his wife what the trip to the IGA in Leechburg had stirred up. She told him to go to the police with his evidence. Reed was somewhat reluctant to do this.
“Reed indicated that he did not have a good relationship with the Kittanning police because he had stolen cars and tools, drank, and got involved in fights,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote. “He kept saying to himself that nobody was going to believe him and that they were going to blame him for it because he was always in trouble downtown.”
However, Reed did speak to the police who put him in touch with a state police trooper. Reed told police that he saw Altman and Crawford sitting on a park bench beside a bridge by the Allegheny River on an evening late in October of 1971. Reed knew Altman because he used to live across the street from her; he also knew Crawford through his association with Crawford’s brother.
Reed remembered walking up to the couple to ask for a cigarette, which Altman gave to him. He said Altman said that she was afraid of Crawford, and that he reassured her that she did not have to fear Crawford because he knew Crawford’s family.
Altman calmed down, but then Crawford jumped up and told him, “If she don’t give me what I want, I’m going to kill the bitch.” Reed said later that he thought the threat was not genuine.
Altman and Crawford left before Reed finished his smoke, walking together towards a flood control dam on the river. Reed followed them to borrow another cigarette. The next time Reed saw them, Altman was seated with her back against a concrete wall with her legs sticking straight out. He noticed that her eyes were “real big.” Crawford, who was sitting or squatting by Altman, jumped up when Reed approached. Reed testified that he ran from the park, but turned to look back. When he looked back, Reed saw Crawford throw Altman into the water.
Under most circumstances, one would expect that witnessing a murder is not something that someone would forget. However, the human mind is a strange thing and hence, “recovered memory.”
People exposed to traumatic events sometimes repress the memories of those events, essentially telling themselves that what happened did not occur.
“The mind, in repression, protects itself from the pain of traumatic experiences, such as childhood sexual abuse, by removing those experiences from conscious awareness,” write James Seward, Ph.D., and Michael Welner, M.D. in “Repressed Memory,” a chapter of the book Forensic Sciences (Matthew Bender, 2005). “The memories are forgotten, but not lost, and continue to affect a person’s life in ways that are unhealthy and destructive.”
Most often, these memories are stirred up or recovered in the course of therapy. While repression of unpleasant events is generally accepted, there remains a great deal of dispute about whether recovered memories are accurate or truthful. “The concept of repressed memories is based on the assumption that such recollections, even if they are produced using cueing, suggestion, writing exercises, or other techniques, are accurate,” Seward and Welner wrote. “However, research has demonstrated that memories of entire events can be implanted in the minds of a significant percentage of normal subjects.”
Crawford was arrested and indicted for Altman’s murder. Before the trial, his attorney requested that Reed be subjected to psychological testing, which the court ordered.
Dr. Jonathan Himmelhoch, the psychiatrist chosen by defense counsel, interviewed Reed on February 3, 1995. Himmelhoch concluded that Reed had a borderline I.Q.; that Reed had not experienced a significant psychiatric symptom during the prolonged period after Altman’s death; and that Reed had abused alcohol and taken psychedelic drugs to a level that would not only disturb his memory, but could also stir up hallucinatory activity once he became convinced of a mistaken belief. In his opinion, Reed’s memory was inaccurate and likely to be wrong.
Himmelhoch submitted a written report, which summarized Reed’s recollection of the events in October of 1971:
Mr. Reed claims he had experienced the return of repressed memories of a Mr. Frank Crawford throwing the body of a Pearl May Altman into the Allegheny River in October of 1971, when he was about 18 years old. He also claims to remember seeing the whites of Ms. Altman’s eyes as she rested in the arms of Mr. Crawford just before he cast her into the river. He assumed she was either dying or dead at that moment. The trigger to this “flashback” is alleged by Mr. Reed to have occurred near an IGA market in Leechburg, Pennsylvania, when he saw a woman whose appearance was exactly the same as Pearl May Altman’s….
My history, which was taken in great detail, estimates this delay began between 1989 and 1991 or between 3 and 5 years previously. During this time Mr. Reed describes a number of dream-like phenomena that reaffirmed to him the truth of his experience of seeing Ms. Altman in the process of being murdered in October 1971. For the most part, these phenomena consisted of hallucinatory visions or voices where Pearl May urged Mr. Reed that he must tell the truth and reveal his long suppressed knowledge and thereby obtain justice for her murder by Frank Crawford. Mr. Reed told me during and after his flashbacks and his visualizations of Pearl May he became quite emotionally upset, each time asserting that he was certain Frank Crawford had done what he had come to remember these past 1 1/2 to 5 years.;
…In summary, even though John George Reed is a likable person who is intrinsically not mendacious – the internal workings of his memory, mind, intelligence and personality fit exactly that type of person who would recall a mistaken screen memory of violence and of terror. It cannot be emphasized enough that, not only is Mr. Reed likely to be wrong but his memory inaccurate and his hallucination of Pearl May decidedly pathological. Moreover, the large majority of repressed memories occurring more than 10 years from a single, acute event are usually wrong. It is my opinion to a high degree of medical certainty that Mr. Reed’s return of the repressed should not be used as evidence of murder, because there is more than reasonable doubt this it (sic) wrong.
This is where the cogs of the legal and medical systems failed to mesh. The jury never heard Himmelhoch’s report.
Under the rules of evidence, the judge could not allow Himmelhoch to testify because expert testimony on the credibility of a witness is inadmissible in court. It is up to a jury to decide how credible a witness is.
According to court rules, had Reed been subjected to therapy to pry the forgotten memories out of his head, Himmelhoch might have been allowed to testify about the shaky ground upon which recovered memory cases are built. But because he simply remembered it all on his own, Reed could not say he was diagnosed with repressed memory syndrome and Himmelhoch was not allowed to take the stand to say he was creating a story out of whole cloth.
But did Crawford actually kill Altman? The jury thought so. Besides Reed’s recollections, several other witnesses testified against him.
The Commonwealth introduced the testimony of Officer Donald Carley, who was previously employed as a patrolman for Kittanning Borough from 1968 to 1978. Officer Carley testified that he had seen Altman outside of a local bar between 11:00 p.m. and midnight on Friday, October 21, 1971, while he was patrolling in a police car. He testified that Altman was with Crawford at that time.
Crawford’s ex-wife testified that on the Friday evening when Altman drowned, her husband had come home late, changed his clothes, put them in the washer, and told her that if anybody came looking for him that she did not see him. Her husband did not stay long, but returned later that night. She commented that it was not typical for Crawford to wash his clothes.
An open-and-shut case.