In 1976, six people confessed to two murders they didn’t commit.
They weren’t covering for each other. They weren’t blackmailed. They all genuinely believed they had committed the crimes.
The Iceland Six, as they’re now known, are the subject of Netflix’s upcoming documentary Out of Thin Air.
In January of 1974, Gudmundur Einarsso went missing after walking home from a nightclub in the middle of the night. The journey from the nightclub to his home was over 10km and Einarsso was last seen drunk, walking down the road in the freezing conditions.
The police never recovered his body.
In November of the same year, another man named Geirfinnur Einarsso (no relation to Gudmundur) received a phone call. He then drove towards a habour cafe, but he was never seen again.
It was then the Icelandic authorities began to wonder if there was a link between the two disappearances and whether they should be investigating a double homicide.
Two years later the police were questioning a woman named Erla Bolladottir on an unrelated fraud charge. They showed Bolladottir a photo of Gudmundur and asked her whether she recognised him.
Bolladottir told police she had once met Gudmundur at a party. On the night he went missing, Bolladottir thought she dreamed of her boyfriend, Saevar Ciesielski, being outside her bedroom with a body.
Police then brought in Ciesielski and four of his closest friends for questioning and, one by one, they admitted to the murders.
But what the police didn't realise in 1976, was that all six suspects were suffering from memory distrust syndrome. People who are experiencing memory distrust syndrome, start to doubt their own memories so much that they're mind starts to create new ones.
The combination of the long, intense interrogation sessions, extended periods of isolation in holding cells, and possible drugging from authorities, led the suspects' minds to create alternative versions of the events.
Gisli Gudjonsson, a world-renowned expert in forensic pathology, told Vice he wasn't surprised this happened.
"Memory distrust syndrome is a profound distrust of your own memory," he explains, "Particularly during lengthy interrogation, where you begin to accept you've been involved in a crime which you have nothing to do with. It can happen when people fail to remember what they were doing at the time – if it was a long time ago, say, and they don't have their diary, or if drinking or substance misuse has made the memory weaker."
All six suspects were convicted of the crimes, Ciesielski received a life sentence, while the other men were each handed 12 years jail and Bolladottir was given three.
In Iceland at the time, like most countries around the world, there was no limitation on how long you could hold suspects without charging them and no guidelines around police interrogations.
In the 1990s the British police began to implement the PEACE Model for interrogations.
"The British police started using formal interviewing techniques – what's called the Peace Model, which is based on being open minded and transparent and searching for the truth, rather than assuming people were guilty," Gisli told Vice.
"There should be clear questions, not leading questions – they shouldn't question people for more than six hours, and they should record from the start to the end."
Australia, New Zealand and Norway are also now using adaptations of the PEACE Model.
The Iceland Six's case was reopened in 2011, when the daughter of one of the convicted men, handed his diaries into police. The diaries showed there had been significant signs of memory distrust syndrome, as well as police misconduct in the case.
In the documentary, Bolladottir admits that she now understands how fickle memories can be, and that her false memory started a snowball effect that sent six people to prison for a crime they didn't commit.
"Imagine the anxiety of that, 40 years on," she says.
Out of Thin Air will be available on Netflix from September.
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