Emma Courtland: Hey, just a quick warning before we get started: this story includes descriptions of sexual violence. Take care when listening.
John Doe: When I came to, I was in an alcove outside the mall. It had a couple of dumpsters, a few parking spots.
Emma: This is where the man's story starts—with an awakening in an unlikely place: the dingy rear of an old, all-American shopping mall on the outskirts of Cincinnati. It was the summer of 1990, and the man says he had no idea how he got to the mall. He says that when he woke up, nothing about himself felt familiar. He couldn't remember where he grew up, or if he had a job. Whether he was rich or poor, someone's son or someone's father. The man couldn't even remember his own name.
John Doe: My mind was just blank.
Emma: He says his memory was just gone. And there weren't any clues as to who he might be. He had no wallet, no ID and no money. The only real clue was a terrible wound on his left hand. A fresh wound. The kind of injury that could have only been caused by brutal force. The entire tip of the man's left middle finger was severed right down to the nail bed. But the man says that, in that moment, in the mall, none of it bothered him—not his finger, or his memory.
John Doe: The only thoughts I had were of what I was seeing, what I was experiencing. Nothing else. No thoughts of the past, none of the future.
Emma: Like everything else he could see, they were merely facts of reality. No more urgent or curious than anything else he was seeing: a shoe store, a pretzel stand, the coins shoppers had tossed in a fountain.
John Doe: Just the normal things you'd see in the mall, except none of it held any meaning for me. People walking by, store employees doing their jobs.
Emma: Mind empty, he says he just watched and wandered in and out and around the mall like this for three days, without thoughts or memories. Sort of at peace. Until on his fourth day at the mall, when the man says he was suddenly jolted back to reality. In a little sitting area surrounded by railings and dotted with potted plants, the man says he struck up a conversation with another man.
John Doe: We started talking, and he started asking questions I couldn't answer, like what my name was, where I'm from, and where I lived.
Emma: As these questions wound their way into the man's empty mind, they took hold, and he started to panic.
John Doe: The question about my name made me wonder who I was.
Emma: Who was he? The man says he still didn't know. And for the first time, that thought terrified him.
John Doe: It was the first time I started thinking something was wrong.
Emma: What could have happened to him to make him lose his memory? And how could he have ended up alone at a shopping mall in Ohio with no wallet, a severed fingertip, and no idea who he was?
Emma: I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.
Emma: This is a story about a man who has no name—at least not yet. And for our purposes, it's also a story about a man who has no voice, because the voice you've been hearing ...
[John Doe: My mind was just blank.]
Emma: ... belongs to a voice actor, who we've asked to read from the man's own writing. And that'll have to do for now. As will the man's name, which we'll borrow from hospital records: John Doe.
Emma: Back at the mall, John Doe was panicking. That guy who had asked him his name and where he was from had made him realize that something was really wrong with him. And he didn't have the first clue about what it was. So he decided to leave the mall.
John Doe: I remember it was dark. I was looking for something, but I really didn't know what.
Emma: As John Doe walked, he happened to pass by a school with the name "Bevis" over the front door.
John Doe: I sat down to rest, and stared at the name.
Emma: While John Doe looked at the name of the school—Bevis—he says three things floated into his otherwise blank brain: "clowns," "gas pump nozzle" and "Stockmeier." But what these three things meant or how they were connected, he had no idea. So he stood up and kept walking. And then ...
John Doe: I came across an older guy and a girl getting in a truck. I asked him where I was. I don't recall what he said, but he asked if I was okay.
Emma: Then, John Doe says, this guy with the truck asked about his hand. He wanted to know what was wrong with it?
John Doe: When I showed him my finger, he said I needed to go to the hospital.
Emma: Which is how John Doe wound up in a hospital room, waiting to meet a psychiatric resident named Dr. Tracey Skale.
Tracey Skale: I'm Tracey Skale. I am an MD. I'm a psychiatrist.
Emma: These days, Dr. Skale is the chief medical officer for a large community mental health center in the Cincinnati area. But back in 1990, she was working at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in their department of psychiatry.
John Doe: She seemed very intelligent. Very professional and concerned. I immediately trusted her.
Tracey Skale: My memory is he was a young man. We thought he was probably in his 20s.
Emma: Dr. Skale took in John Doe's appearance. He was tall, with dark, wavy locks and blue eyes, tattoos snaking down both forearms.
Tracey Skale: His hair was a mess, and he had—I think he had beard stubble going on. Unkempt clothes.
Emma: But obviously, Dr. Skale's most alarming observation was that his left middle finger was in really bad shape.
Tracey Skale: He had been treated for amputation of the distal phalange.
Emma: It was clear to Dr. Skale that this man had been through something terrible. She just didn't know what. So she asked him.
Tracey Skale: What can we do to help you? You seem like you're really in distress.
Emma: But all John Doe could say in response was ...
Tracey Skale: "I don't know who I am. Can you help me? Help me. I don't know who I am. How can you help me?"
Emma: John Doe looked terrified. His eyes kept filling with tears, and he kept fidgeting in his chair. Tracey was in her 20s at the time, not much older than John Doe appeared to be. But watching him struggle, how scared he was, brought out this protective, maternal instinct in her.
Tracey Skale: If you imagine, if you honestly show up somewhere and you have no idea who you are, and you don't know any—how terrifying that would be.
Emma: John Doe had the vocabulary and dexterity of an adult, but like a baby, the world and the objects in it held no meaning for him.
Tracey Skale: He was acting like he'd just hatched out of an egg or, you know, was an alien from another planet. I just arrived here. What's this? What is this thing that you call a television? You know, what is this salt shaker?
John Doe: I used the example of knowing what salt was but not knowing what it was used for. Not meaning I didn't know this, only that it best described the feeling that I was experiencing. That everything was as it should be, but it had no meaning.
Emma: But obviously, the most troubling aspect of John Doe's condition was that he said he had no idea who he was or what had happened to him.
Tracey Skale: Global retrograde amnesia.
Emma: Global retrograde amnesia. It sounds like something out of a soap opera, but it is a real thing, characterized by a total loss of memory instead of the loss of a single event.
Tracey Skale: I've never had a situation like that since. And I've talked to many of my colleagues, they've never had a situation like that. So it's very, very unusual.
Emma: Dr. Skale figured that the best way to help John Doe would be to determine what had caused him to lose his memory. As a psychiatrist, she had a checklist for diagnosing this kind of thing. First, rule out any physical trauma to the head.
Tracey Skale: The only trauma that they saw was the finger. There was nothing else going on in terms of obvious bruises to the head or anything.
Emma: Next? Drugs.
Tracey Skale: The tox screen was positive only for trace cannabis.
Emma: But a little weed couldn't be responsible for John Doe's amnesia.
Tracey Skale: Then you start asking basic routine, what we call mental status questions. Are you suicidal? Do you have any thoughts that you might hurt someone else? Are you hearing any voices that other people don't hear? Do you feel like people are following you? No, none of that.
Emma: John Doe didn't appear to be depressed or psychotic, and he wasn't on any major drugs or suffering from a head injury. That left just one possibility on Dr. Skale's checklist.
Tracey Skale: The working diagnosis was psychogenic amnesia. It's now called dissociative amnesia.
Emma: Dissociative amnesia.
Tracey Skale: Typically, people that go in an amnestic state have been a victim of some kind of traumatic event.
Emma: Often they're witnesses to war or victims of violence.
Tracey Skale: People don't think about Freud and those kinds of things as much anymore, but psychodynamically there's roots to that too. Like, you're repressing some kind of traumatic event, and it's too horrible to face the reality of that, and so you disappear.
Emma: Tracey ran this by her colleagues, and some of them were skeptical.
Tracey Skale: You get a lot of, "Yeah, right, he doesn't know who he is." Because it sounds so extreme.
Emma: Dissociative amnesia has been listed as a symptom of PTSD since the 1980s, but only in the past decade or so, scientists have been developing tools to be able to verify this kind of condition. Dissociative amnesia, they've found, is actually measurable. It can be mapped using MRIs. Even though Dr. Skale didn't have this diagnostic tool in 1990, we now know that she was onto something—dissociative amnesia is a real thing. And if John Doe had it, she needed to find out why. What could've been so traumatic that it had caused John Doe to black out his entire life?
Tracey Skale: So we thought maybe he had been the victim of something.
Emma: Something like an attack. After all, he had woken up alone, with his wallet and ID missing, and the tip of his finger forcibly amputated. Now that Dr. Skale had made a diagnosis, her goal was clear: to try to retrieve John Doe's memories. Restoring someone's memory is not like mending a broken bone. It's an extremely delicate process. Sometimes your efforts to fix it can end up breaking it more. Luckily, Dr. Skale wasn't working on John Doe's case alone. The head of the psychiatry department was helping oversee it. And he had an idea about what to do next.
Tracey Skale: He suggested we need to do an amytal interview.
Emma: Amytal is a drug often referred to as "truth serum." Another popular soap opera convention.
Tracey Skale: So it's a sedative, but not to the point that you're sleeping, but you're just more relaxed. So anything that would be a sedative effect. So maybe a lot of wine. Maybe a lot of wine. And they say, you know, drunks can't lie. You know, when someone gets a lot more sloppy with their speech and they just start telling it like it is without a filter, that's part of that process.
Emma: "Truth serums" are controversial. They've been used for all sorts of messed up things, and they can implant false memories. But in John Doe's case, they were out of options. The truth serum was their hail Mary. The idea was that if John Doe had been through something so horrible that his mind had built a wall around his memory, then, perhaps the "truth serum" could lower that wall—that is, his inhibitions—enough to access the missing pieces of his past. Dr. Skale explained all of this to John Doe and asked him what he thought.
Tracey Skale: "Do you want to do that?" "Yes, yes. I will do that."
John Doe: My thoughts about it were simple. If Dr. Skale thought it would help, okay. I knew something was wrong with me, and I placed my trust in her.
Emma: So Dr. Skale led John Doe to a large white conference room with windows all along one wall, and a chalkboard with a drawing of three balloons on it. In the middle of the room was a large, round table almost as big as the room itself, around which eight people were sitting. One of them offered John Doe a seat.
John Doe: I was asked by one of the men how I was feeling. If I was all right with the interview.
Emma: John Doe said yes. And then Dr. Skale's colleague, the head of the department, lifted a syringe and pushed the contents into an IV. The drug trickled down the line into John Doe's vein.
John Doe: Very quickly I felt warm. I stood up and walked back and forth a couple times.
Tracey Skale: He's starting to get mellow and starting to talk much more fluidly.
John Doe: I remember saying something about the balloons. I thought they were funny for some reason. I remember being asked, "What do you remember?"
Tracey Skale: And as he would start to remember a little bit, we would play off of that.
John Doe: My answer was, "I remember Rudy Rucker." He's an author of a book about fourth dimensional geometry. Why this book was all of a sudden the most important thing to me, I don't know. I just kept talking about it. At this point, I was really high. I felt large, like I had grown in size. Very euphoric. Very talkative.
Emma: That was the last thing John Doe remembered before he blacked out. When he came to again, he was being escorted out of the conference room.
John Doe: Everyone else was picking their things up and getting ready to leave.
Emma: But had he revealed anything? The answer was, not really. He didn't remember his name, who he was or what had caused his memory loss. But he did remember this one thing, one very small, very important detail that would end up changing everything.
Tracey Skale: There was something about a second grade teacher, and he remembered the name of some second grade teacher. And that was it.
Emma: This second grade teacher worked at a nearby school called Bevis. Remember, that was the name of the school John Doe says he walked past the night he was wandering around Cincinnati, right before he went to the hospital. The same school that made him think of those three disjointed things: "clowns," "gas pump nozzle" and "Stockmeier."
John Doe: Stockmeier was the name of my second grade teacher. Her husband invented the automatic shut off gas pump nozzle. And she used to dress up sometimes as a clown, and she gave every student of hers a handmade clown doll. So the thoughts I was having while sitting at the school were memories.
Emma: Memories that we haven't actually been able to verify. But the point was, John Doe was connecting these images to something in his past. It wasn't the watershed moment everyone hoped it'd be, but it was enough to convince the staff that he was local, and that perhaps his family might still be around. Which got them thinking.
Tracey Skale: You know how you see "Lost Dog. If anyone's seen this dog." You see on the news all the time, "Here's this toddler that was wandering in the street. Can anybody identify this child?"
Emma: Someone at the hospital had an idea.
Tracey Skale: This is a great news story. There's a John Doe. Let's put it out on the six o'clock news, and see if anybody recognizes this man.
Emma: Dr. Skale ran the idea by John Doe, and he said okay. So the local media was alerted, especially to the detail about his second grade teacher—Stockmeier. And almost immediately, the plan worked.
Tracey Skale: And they found this teacher. Channel 12 or whatever it was were all over that.
Emma: And they brought this teacher to the hospital to meet John Doe.
Tracey Skale: And she shows up in the room with little second grade yearbooks, and brings them into the room.
John Doe: As soon as I saw her, I felt a wave of similarity as she started talking and showing the class photos.
Tracey Skale: She was going through these pictures of his classmates and him in second grade.
Emma: And while the TV cameras rolled, John Doe pointed at one of the little pictures.
Tracey Skale: And then he said, "That's me!" We were so excited. We were like, "Oh my God. Like, this is like the best thing ever," you know, right? We're all, "So cool. What a great story."
Emma: And then John Doe looked at the name printed underneath the picture: Stephen Brinker.
Tracey Skale: And that's when things started to change.
Emma: John Doe had found his name. And suddenly, the mood in the room shifted. Dr. Skale noticed this change come over John Doe.
Tracey Skale: He wasn't scared anymore. He wasn't the scared kid that came in. His demeanor changed. Like, it was a different face. This was a different guy.
Emma: He wasn't John Doe anymore. He was Stephen Brinker.
Tracey Skale: And then he said, "Stop the cameras."
Emma: Not far from the Cincinnati hospital where John Doe had just become Stephen Brinker, a detective was sitting in a hotel room enjoying the last day of his family vacation.
Ned Foy: The hotel we were staying at, they always deposited the Cincinnati Enquirer at your front door so you had a paper to read in the morning.
Emma: Detective Ned Foy got up to grab the paper.
Ned Foy: So I opened the door, picked up the paper and walked back in the room. Wife's in there with the kids. And I start reading the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Emma: On an inside page, a headline caught his eye.
Ned Foy: "Doctor Uncovers Parts of Amnesiac's History."
Emma: It was a small, four-paragraph story about a John Doe who'd been admitted to a local hospital. The article said that the doctors had treated him for amnesia and for a severed finger, before identifying him as Stephen Brinker from Bradenton, Florida. Ned was beside himself.
Ned Foy: Well, my wife said I jumped up off the chair like I was like a banty rooster and I yelled, "Bullshit!" [laughs]
Emma: The reason Ned had such a giant reaction is because he lived in Bradenton, and worked as a detective in the county sheriff's office. And the article reminded him of something that had happened in Bradenton about two weeks earlier. Ned and his wife had been getting ready to load their kids into their Suburban and drive to Cincinnati, Ned's hometown, for their family vacation.
Ned Foy: We traveled by car everywhere. We didn't fly anywhere. Couldn't afford it on a cop's salary. [laughs]
Emma: But before they left, Ned got up early and drove to the sheriff's office to drop off his guns.
Ned Foy: So if somebody got into my house, they wouldn't get my guns. And that's exactly what I did at four o'clock in the morning.
Emma: Since it was so early, Ned wasn't expecting to run into anyone at the office. But at the door, he met another detective.
Ned Foy: I said, "What are you doing up here?" He says, "Oh man." He says, "I've been out all night." I said, "Oh, what happened?" He said, "Man, I had one of the worst rapes I have ever worked in my career." He says, "Yeah, she was beaten half to death, and she was brutalized by this guy.
Emma: Around 2:00 a.m. that morning, while it was still dark out, a woman had accepted a ride from a stranger. She'd been hanging out at a local bar, and when she'd wanted to leave, the bouncer had refused to give her the keys to her car, so another patron at the bar had offered to drive her home. She didn't know the man, but he'd seemed normal enough. But on the way to her house, the man had changed. He'd pulled off into a dark and deserted church parking lot. There, he'd raped her, and swore at her, and beat her. But incredibly, she'd managed to escape.
Emma: We spoke with the survivor of this horrific attack, and ultimately she decided not to participate in our story. But we know from police and court records and statements she made to the media at the time, that in the course of her escape, she bit her attacker—hard enough that he let go of her. Then she ran all the way home.
Ned Foy: I said, "Really? You got a suspect?" He said, "No, I got nothing."
Emma: Nothing that might lead this detective to a culprit. Except for this one thing. The thing that the woman had bitten down on in her escape was the attacker's finger. She'd bitten the tip of it clean off. Sitting in his hotel room in Cincinnati, Ned felt sure this John Doe he was reading about had to be the same stranger who had attacked this woman.
Ned Foy: Those are not just coincidences, okay? Fingertip missing, Bradenton boy in Cincinnati. I knew it was him.
Emma: The fingertip the survivor had bitten off had actually been discovered at the scene of the crime sitting in a pool of blood. The sheriff's department had recovered the fingertip, a left middle fingertip—which was the same fingertip Stephen was missing. Ned jumped into action. He picked up the phone and called a friend who worked at the sheriff's office in Cincinnati.
Ned Foy: I called him and I said, "Hey, let me tell you something, buddy. I think that you got 99 and nine-tenths percent of him up here. We have one-tenth of one percent down in our property and evidence room refrigerator on ice—his fingertip.
Emma: Back at the hospital, the psychiatrist, Dr. Skale, didn't know anything about the phone call Ned Foy was making from his hotel. She still believed that Stephen Brinker may have been the victim of a crime, something so bad it had wiped out his memory. But then, when Stephen's teacher arrived at the hospital with his second grade yearbook, Tracey started to wonder. She watched the way Stephen's demeanor changed when he read his name printed under his picture.
Tracey Skale: It was a different face. This was a different guy.
Emma: Less innocent. More troubled. And once Stephen knew his name, he seemed really eager to leave the hospital.
Tracey Skale: He was much more like, "Got this. Out of here. Thanks, bye," Kind of thing, you know?
Emma: And then, as Dr. Skale was wondering who this new Stephen Brinker might be, she got a phone call.
Tracey Skale: "Hey, this is Cincinnati local police."
Emma: It was the police with a message for her about Stephen.
Tracey Skale: "Stay tuned. Don't do anything, and do not let him leave." I think I went from, like, "Oh, poor guy, vulnerable. Let's help him," to "Is he a dangerous guy?" Like, we don't know. We don't know him at all.
Emma: As Dr. Skale sat there waiting for police to arrive, she realized that she knew as little about Stephen Brinker as she knew about the John Doe who had walked into her office a few days before.
Tracey Skale: And what's going to happen? Is he going to hurt us? Well, you didn't know if he was going to hurt us. If he really raped some woman and it was so horrible that she bit off his finger, am I at risk? So there was a heightened sense of anxiety for staff on the unit because this is a guy now, we don't know who he really is. Now he didn't know who he was, and now we really don't know who he is.
Emma: Finally, the police arrived at the hospital.
Tracey Skale: I think I probably got paged out of the room or something like that. So we knew it was coming.
Emma: Dr. Skale turned to Stephen and said ...
Tracey Skale: "Stephen, I'm going to step out." And then the police came in and that was it. I never heard of him again.
Emma: Stephen was arrested for the violent sexual assault in Bradenton, Florida. And all the local news that had been following the plight of poor John Doe shifted their coverage to a story of doubt, of betrayal. Of a man who might have pretended to have amnesia to escape responsibility for a heinous crime.
Ned Foy: He didn't have amnesia.
Emma: Detective Ned Foy agreed with that interpretation that Stephen was a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.
Ned Foy: Anybody can fake amnesia. I could sit here right now and say, "Oh, I don't remember a thing."
Emma: Ned says that back in the day, he saw mental illness thrown around as an excuse for all kinds of crimes, as a way to dodge culpability.
Ned Foy: It is not unusual for a defendant feign mental illness as a way to avoid subsequent arrest. That's not uncommon. That is really not uncommon. I was a cop. I didn't buy amnesia for one second.
Tracey Skale: That makes sense, especially from a police officer's standpoint. I get that.
Emma: Dr. Skale again.
Tracey Skale: I think it's probably really easy to fake, yeah. And that's why we see all these, you know, TV shows about that and soap operas. Yeah, soap operas in particular, right? Amnesia's a common theme on that. Yeah, I think it's pretty easy to fake.
Emma: Remember, this was something that Dr. Skale's colleagues had wondered, too: if Stephen was feigning his memory loss. But from Dr. Skale's perspective, none of those people had interacted with Stephen the way she had. None of them had evaluated him. Ned Foy had never even met him. She and the head of the psychiatry department were the only people who had actually treated Stephen—and they believed his amnesia was real.
Tracey Skale: Having processed this with the chair of the department of psychiatry, we stand by that we believe that he absolutely had true amnesia. And I didn't feel duped, though. I never felt duped or, oh, this guy tried to pull the wool over us or anything. I feel like we did the right thing for him.
Emma: Dr. Skale's certainty isn't naiveté or defensiveness. It comes from the facts of how she came to know Stephen. In particular, the fact that when he came to her hospital to get treatment for his amnesia, he was essentially turning himself in.
Tracey Skale: The key with him was that he wanted so desperately to do whatever it took to figure out who he was. If you were trying to hide a crime that you committed, why would you want to have news people involved and agree to an amytal interview?
Emma: If Stephen knew who he was and what he was suspected of, Dr. Skale figured he never would have come to the hospital in the first place, much less let them give him a "truth serum" or put his face on TV. All of this felt like proof to her that Stephen's amnesia was real.
Emma: After Stephen was arrested, Dr. Skale and the head of the department published a paper on Stephen's case. In it, they told the story of what happened and how they'd treated him. But when they got to the part about what had caused Stephen's amnesia, they had to amend their original theory. Remember, initially, Dr. Skale thought Stephen must have been the victim of a crime—something so traumatic that he couldn't bear to face it. Now that Stephen had been accused of perpetrating a violent crime, Dr. Skale and her colleague developed a new theory about the cause of Stephen's amnesia that had to do with the severity of the very crime that he'd been arrested for.
Tracey Skale: This was so out of control that it triggered an amnestic response.
Emma: Dr. Skale explained that under this theory, Stephen's own actions had been so violent, so terrible, that he'd blocked it from his psyche.
Tracey Skale: You're repressing something that's so horrible. I mean, that's just somebody that wasn't him from what we all know. So if that's—there was an internal conflict for him, that could have triggered that amnestic state.
Emma: And this isn't a theory that only Dr. Skale has had. Dissociative amnesia is generally understood to be a psychological defense mechanism that the mind uses to protect itself from trauma. But studies have also found that the trauma the mind is protecting itself from can include one's own violent behavior. In fact, according to one recent study, nearly one-third of people who commit a homicide report varying degrees of amnesia for the incident, which is to say: committing a crime can also be a psychic injury.
Emma: There's one other detail from Dr. Skale's paper that's worth mentioning. When she described what happened to Stephen, she assumed his amnesia ended that day in the hospital when he read his name in that second grade yearbook and appeared to be transformed. But there's something that Dr. Skale didn't know when she wrote her paper, which is that to this day, Stephen says his memory has never fully come back. Yes, Stephen did remember who he was that day at the hospital, but as for the night of the crime, Stephen insists that his memory of it and the three months surrounding it is still totally blank.
Emma: Which might sound like a legal maneuver on Stephen's part. If he couldn't remember the crime, maybe he could avoid prosecution. But in reality, his claim of amnesia ended up really hurting his case when it finally went to trial. For one thing, even though the prosecution felt like they had an airtight case—they had, after all, discovered the tip of a left middle finger—Stephen still couldn't believe that he was capable of committing this crime. He'd committed crimes before, but nothing like this.
Emma: So when the prosecution offered him a plea deal that would have had him out of prison in 15 to 20 years, he rejected it. Going to trial could result in a much longer sentence, but Stephen still wanted to go because he felt like he needed to see the evidence against him. So Stephen's case went to trial, where his amnesia created a whole new set of obstacles.
Emma: Stephen's lawyer told us that because Stephen couldn't remember, he couldn't offer any information that might help his case. So in the face of the evidence and the fact that Stephen couldn't really aid in his own defense, his lawyer felt that Stephen had only one real option: to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Which sounds like pleading innocent, but it isn't. Pleading insanity means essentially saying, "Yes, I did it, but I wasn't in my right mind, so I shouldn't be held accountable." Stephen did have a history of episodic mental illness, and this became the focal point of the trial, not the question of whether or not Stephen committed this crime. In other words, his culpability was never in question. So there was never any DNA testing. The fingerprint comparison was never presented, nor were there any witnesses called to identify Stephen in court.
Emma: Before I go any further, I want to make it clear: this is not an exoneration story, but it is a story about justice. Because even though Stephen went to trial, he never really had to confront the evidence against him.
Emma: In the end, Stephen was convicted on one count of aggravated battery and two counts of sexual battery by force likely to cause serious injury, which in Florida, is synonymous with rape. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 15 years. Which, of course, was decades longer than the plea bargain he was offered, but not unusual for the 1990s, when the country was still pushing tough-on-crime prosecutions and judges were lauded for handing down the harshest possible sentences. And so, without ever really grappling with the evidence of his own culpability, Stephen was sent to prison. Which is where he still is today.
[AUTOMATED CALLER: Hello, this is a prepaid call from Stephen Brinker. An inmate at a Florida Department of Corrections institution.]
Emma: We've been communicating with Stephen over email for nearly a year, but it's been really tough to get him on the phone.
Stephen Brinker: Hello?
Emma: Hi, can you hear me?
Stephen Brinker: Hi, how are you doing?
Emma: That's why you've been hearing a voice actor reading from emails Stephen sent us from prison, which is where he's been for roughly 30 years.
Stephen Brinker: I was 25 when I came to prison. I'm now 56. Natural life in Florida means forever.
Emma: Forever is a long time to think about things, and that's part of why we wanted to talk to Stephen over the phone, to ask him how he relates to his own culpability now, so many years later. If the time has restored his memory, or even just changed his understanding of that night. But as we talked to him, it became clear that when it comes to these questions, very little has changed for Stephen. Instead, it felt like we were listening to someone who is still stuck in limbo. There were some moments when it felt like Stephen was actually trying to disprove the evidence against him, to persuade us of his innocence.
Stephen Brinker: The victim does not identify me. None of this is just—the evidence is just not there. It's pointed at me, sure. A crime was committed, but nobody got up there and said I did anything.
Emma: But then there were all of these other moments when it felt like Stephen was genuinely grappling with the possibility that he did do this.
Emma: Have you ever wavered in your certainty that you did not commit this crime?
Stephen Brinker: Every day. Excuse me. Yeah, excuse me. Yeah, every day. Every day. You know, I don't want to be that person, you know what I'm saying? I really don't. I don't want to be that person, and I'm not trying to hold nothing back. And I hope I didn't do it. And I really do. I hope I didn't do it.
Emma: Since Stephen says he can't remember the crime he's in prison for, he hasn't been able to reconcile it with everything else he knows about himself which, when he was on the outside, wasn't good. But from what we know, it wasn't monstrous either.
Stephen Brinker: I was locked up my whole life from the age of, like, 14, you know? So all my memories are bad.
Emma: There were the petty crimes, the drugs, the psychiatric and criminal institutions he'd been in and out of, the best friend he says he lost in a car crash, and his own experience as a survivor of violent sexual abuse.
Stephen Brinker: I've done a lot of things in my life, you know? I'm not a violent person, but I've committed quite a few crimes. And most of them I've been caught for. But how is it that I acted so far out of character?
Emma: It's a good question. And one perhaps a lot of people who are incarcerated eventually ask themselves. But for Stephen, without his memories, the answer evades him. It remains stuck in amber. It's there, but just out of reach, and so he can't move forward, which is a unique kind of imprisonment. And maybe that doesn't feel like it matters because Stephen was convicted of a horrendous crime. And because the survivor of this horrendous crime does remember. She's lived with this every day for the last 30 years.
Emma: But there is also something about Stephen's inability to remember that makes the very idea of justice feel incomplete. Stephen is doing his time, serving out two life sentences. But what that sentence is supposed to represent—whether you believe in that or not—is a rebalancing of harm. It's an act of atonement. But without his memory, Stephen can't fully participate in that process even if he wants to.
Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production.
Emma: This episode was reported and produced by Cat Schuknecht and me, Emma Courtland. Crime Show is produced by Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht and Jade Abdul-Malik. Our senior producer is Mitch Hansen. Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Additional research help from Anya Schultz and Julie Carli, and field production help from Laila Oweda and Elizabeth Kramer. Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka.
Emma: Our theme song is by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Original music by So Wylie and Dara Hirsch. Voice acting by Reis Thebault.
Emma: Special thanks to Lydia Polgreen, Reyhan Harmanci, Connie Walker, Blythe Terrell, Rachel Strom and Jonah Delso.