Only three people knew what really happened that Sunday night 12 years ago in a Riverdale, Md., bedroom, and one of them is dead. He was Armando DeFeo, who was stabbed three times in the back and three times in the chest by either his wife, Donna, or their 19-year-old son Angelo, both of whom have confessed to the murder. The identity of the one who wielded the knife may never be known with certainty, but the the story is one of conflict, love, rage, family loyalty and self-sacrifice of classic proportions.

According to his family, Armando DeFeo was a chronic wife-beater and child abuser. Angelo, the eldest of his seven children was a Marine at home on leave on Sept. 14, 1971, when, he said, his father arrived home drunk and began assaulting his mother. The son told police that night that he had killed his father in self-defense, and he was never indicted. The family resettled in California where the mother raised all the children, the youngest of whom is now 12. Last week, she entered a police station and announced that it was she, not her son, who had killed Armando and that she wanted to clear her conscience and her son's name.

If she is now telling the truth, one can imagine the family decisions that were made during the moments before the police arrived at the Riverdale house. Angelo, we are led to believe, understood his mother's actions and wanted to shield her. The older children in the family were called in and they apparently agreed to keep the secret. It is possible that the son's primary concern was for his young brothers and sisters as much as for his mother. Who would care for them if she went to prison? Would she survive such an ordeal if she were convicted? What powerful love and sense of family responsibility moved him to confess when the risk of conviction and punishment for the 19-year-old son was surely greater than it would have been for his battered mother? Why did the mother acquiesce in his lie and would her story have changed if he had been indicted? And why has she come forward now, when there was virtually no threat of exposure?

But perhaps the son was telling the truth 12 years ago. Maybe he really did kill his father to protect his mother and the other children. The mother says he has suffered, that he has been shunned by family members and called names. Even thousands of miles away from the scene of the crime, he still bears the burden of a confession of guilt. Perhaps it is the mother who is making the sacrifice now, assuming the burden in the eyes of the world because she is older and has raised her children and is willing publicly to carry this stigma in order to take it from her son.

Prince George's County officials are now deciding whether to reopen the case, and it is possible that we will never know what really happened that night. But no matter who killed and who lied, the story is a powerful one, not only of our time and our culture, but universal and as timeless as families, guilt and love.