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George Franklin Trial: 1990-91

George Franklin Trial: 1990-91

Defendant: George Franklin
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Douglas Horngrad and Arthur Wachtel
Chief Prosecutor: Elaine Tipton
Judge: Thomas McGinn Smith
Place: Redwood City, California
Dates of Trial: October 31, 1990-January 29, 1991
Verdict: Guilty (overturned on appeal)
Sentence: Life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial of George Franklin raised the troubling question of how far courts and juries can rely upon and trust the evidence of formerly repressed memories of traumatic events in deciding a defendant's guilt or innocence.

On January 1989, Eileen Franklin-Lipsker was playing with her young daughter, Jessica, and as the child turned toward her, a memory of another girl in just such a pose sprang into Franklin-Lipsker's mind. The memory was of her childhood best friend, eight-year-old Susan Nason, being raped and killed by Franklin-Lipsker's father nearly 20 years earlier.

Until that moment in 1989, Franklin-Lipsker had had no recollection of being a witness to this horrible scene. Now, suddenly, it came flooding back in graphic and gruesome detail. "Her hands flew up to her head," she later said. "The next thing I heard was two blows. It sounded terrible."

Daughter Goes To Police

This, at least, was the story that Franklin-Lipsker began to tell her friends and family, and eventually the police. After taking a statement from her, the police arrested her father, George Franklin, on November 29, 1989, for the murder. At his home they found a number of pornographic magazines and pictures, including those of young children.

Twenty years earlier, in September 1969, young Susan Nason disappeared from her town of Foster City, California. Her body was discovered outdoors a few months later, showing signs of a violent death, including a crushed skull and a smashed ring that seemed to indicate she was warding off a blow. A bloodstained rock was found nearby. The press reported these and other facts, but police never made an arrest for her murder. Franklin and others were questioned at the time, and Franklin went to visit Susan's graveside on the first anniversary of her death.

Ten years later, Franklin's wife asked him if he had murdered Susan. During their divorce proceedings Franklin-Lipsker's mother said that Franklin had abused his own children, including Eileen, both verbally and physically.

Now, 20 years after Susan's death, Franklin-Lipsker claimed that she remembered being with her father and Susan on the day of the murder. She said that she had watched her father rape and kill Susan, and that he had threatened her, too.

"He said that if I told anyone," she testified, "he would have to kill me. I believed him." Because of the shock of what she had witnessed and her total belief in her father, according to several psychiatrists who were questioned, she had repressed her memories of that day for years. Not until she saw her own daughter in a pose similar to Susan's two decades later, she said, did they resurface.

Daughter Is Star Witness At
Father's Trial

The trial opened in late October 1990, and Franklin-Lipsker became the star wit-.-ness. The prosecution's case revolved almost totally on her account based on the resurfacing of her repressed memories. Leading psychiatrists and psychologists testified on behalf of both the prosecution and defense. The prosecution witnesses explained the theory of the repression of traumatic memories; the defense witnesses argued that Franklin-Lipsker did not fit the profile of those who had such memories, and, indeed, called into question the accuracy of such memories in any event. The defense also argued that all of the facts to which Franklin-Lipsker testified had been reported in the papers; she therefore could have known what had happened without being an eye-witness to the murder.

Trial judge Thomas McGinn Smith prevented the defense from introducing newspaper accounts that mentioned the facts that Franklin-Lipsker revealed. However, he did allow the admission of what some would call circumstantial evidence. When Franklin-Lipsker went to visit her father in prison before the trial and asked him to tell the truth, Franklin had said nothing, instead pointing to a prison sign that warned inmates that officials might monitor their conversations. Franklin's silence, said prosecutor Elaine Tipton, in the face of this accusation, was "worth its weight in gold" as an implied admission of guilt.

On November 30, 1990, the jury found Franklin guilty of Susan's murder, although the prosecution had not produced any physical evidence to connect houghhim with theher death. prosecutionThe conviction rested almost totally on Franklin-Lipsker's testimony, despite her estrangement from him and the psychologists who challenged the veracity of her claims. On January 29, 1991, Judge Smith sentenced Franklin to life imprisonment, the maximum sentence possible under the law at the time of the 1969 murder. However, in 1995, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction, finding that Judge Smith should have allowed Franklin to challenge his daughter's testimony by being able to introduce the newspaper articles as evidence. The court also found that using Franklin's silence as evidence of an admission of guilt violated his constitutional right to remain silent. Finally, the court noted that the entire subject of repressed memory was a highly controversial one whose accuracy was still subject to debate. Franklin later sued his daughter and the psychologists who had testified against him for conspiracy to present false testimony, but the courts ultimately rejected this suit.

While memories of past events are often used as evidence in civil and criminal trials, the heavy reliance on repressed memory in the Franklin case was unique in American criminal law. Trial courts had long recognized that memories could be faulty, especially when they were of events from far in the past. The federal appeals court here found that the repressed memories of Franklin-Lipsker were no different from other types of memories, and it criticized the trial court for refusing to let the defense test these memories, as it would have been able to test any others.

After being imprisoned for six years, George Franklin was released from jail when his conviction was overturned.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

MacLean, Harry N. Once Upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder, and the Law. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Terr, Lenore. Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

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