The roles played by Beatrice psychologist Dr. Wayne Price in the Helen Wilson murder investigation could be cause today for an inquiry into professional misconduct, says an officer of the American Board of Forensic Psychology.
"These things are strongly discouraged and there'd be grounds, at least today, in looking into charges of professional ethics," said Dr. James R. Eisenberg, professor of psychology and director of the criminal justice program at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio.
Eisenberg has worked on more than 200 death penalty cases and thousands of other criminal and civil forensic proceedings.
In investigating the 1985 murder, Beatrice law enforcement called on Price, who was also a part-time Gage County Sheriff's deputy and had counseled at least one of the suspects.
As a consulting psychologist for the Beatrice Police Department and the sheriff's office, Price prepared a suspect profile, met at least once with four, possibly five, of the six suspects after they were in custody and sat in on interrogation sessions.
The investigation into Wilson's death resulted in six people spending a total of 70 years in prison for crimes the state now says they did not commit.
"It's mind-boggling. I'd never heard of it happening until this case," state Assistant Attorney General Corey O'Brien said of Price's multiple roles in the case.
Psychologists may watch interrogations to give interviewers tips, O'Brien said, but they generally do so from the other side of one-way mirrors.
Until two years ago, Price, 66, was head of Blue Valley Mental Health Center in Beatrice, and he counseled JoAnn Taylor before her arrest in 1989. Suspects Debra Shelden and James Dean saw colleagues at the center.
Even if Price did not treat them personally, Eisenberg said, he should have recused himself.
"The guy works for the sheriff's department. That alone is a conflict of interest," he said. "The fact that he saw someone even one time is a conflict, and the fact that he saw more than one of them is a problem."
Some states require psychologists to hold specialized licenses. In Nebraska, a licensed psychologist can work in any branch - forensic, adolescent, geriatric, and so forth, said state Health and Human Services spokeswoman Marla Augustine.
Price earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Arkansas in 1969 and has been licensed in Nebraska since 1978. He has been a member of the American and Nebraska psychological associations and the Nebraska Society of Professional Psychologists, and he was a member of the board of examiners of psychologists for the state of Nebraska.
HHS records show no disciplinary action against the Nebraska license he has held for 30 years, and the Arkansas Psychology Board has no complaints against him on file.
Still, the Nebraska Attorney General's Office was troubled by Price's role in helping defendants in the Wilson case remember what happened the night she was killed. Three of them testified at Joseph White's murder trial to details they recalled only through dreams and nightmares.
Price said he saw - and still sees - his role in the Wilson investigation as peripheral. When he spoke to suspects, he said, he told them he was there as a deputy, not as their therapist.
That didn't sway Eisenberg.
"No, (Price's disclosure) does not mitigate. His roles are so convoluted I find it to be unacceptable. … He really isn't independent. He's an advocate for the police department."
But Dr. Stephen Feldman, an attorney and psychologist who has practiced and taught law and psychology, said the fact Price told defendants he was acting in his role as a sheriff's deputy - and not a counselor - does act in the doctor's favor.
"It's not an easy question," said Feldman, who is on the University of Washington School of Medicine faculty and a consultant on legal and ethical problems that arise in the course of practice. "On the one hand he gave an appropriate warning. On the other hand you can say, 'Well how much does that count when you are a trusted counselor who has a special relationship?'
"Under some circumstances, as long as you're clear, you can provide both counseling and evaluation," said Feldman, who holds a law degree from Harvard and a psychology degree from the University of Nebraska.
Steven Drizin, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, said a colleague who studied more than 2,000 interrogations found only two others in which a psychologist held such a dual role.
"Using psychologists to consult on interrogations is rare, and I have never seen a case in which the psychologist acted as both therapist and interrogator," he said.
He also criticized Price for suggesting suspects had repressed memories of the crime - a technique he said can produce invented memories and false confessions.
"My role was to look for mental health issues after the people were arrested (in ways) that would be relevant to the case," said Price.
As for inventing or creating memories, Price said that would require frequent, intense contact over long periods of time. He said he had no such contact with the Beatrice suspects.
Today, Price has a Lincoln office and works in geriatric psychology. He continues to work as a part-time Gage County Sheriff's deputy.