Nebraska County Pays Huge Price for Bungled Murder Case

SCOTUS upholds verdict that will see 'Beatrice Six' get $28M for their wrongful convictions
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 6, 2019 2:54 PM CST
The Remarkable Case of the 'Beatrice Six' Reaches Its End
In this Jan 26, 2009 file photo, four of the six people known as the Beatrice Six, from left, James Dean, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, and Debra Shelden, right, applaud during a reception in Lincoln, Neb.   (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

The Beatrice Six are a unique case in the history of American crime, and the Supreme Court's Monday decision related to their case has left Nebraska's Gage County in a unique situation. The six went to prison for raping and killing Helen Wilson in the town of Beatrice in 1985 despite not matching blood and semen found at the scene; in the course of the investigation, most of them developed false memories of committing the crime at the prodding of police. All but one, Joseph White, took a plea. But a judge in 2009 found they were innocent "beyond all doubt." Here's what happened next:

  • In 2016, the county was ordered to pay White's estate, Kathy Gonzales, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden, and Ada JoAnn Taylor $28.1 million. The Supreme Court let that verdict stand, in what was the last legal option for the county—whose annual budget is less than a third of that amount, reports the Washington Post. More:
  • The group together spent 75 years in prison before the truth emerged in 2008. As part of White's appeals, DNA testing was ordered that year and found just one match—of a man who wasn't part of the Beatrice Six. That man was Bruce Allen Smith, who had once lived in Beatrice, was in town that night, and died in prison in 1992. White, Winslow, and Taylor were still incarcerated and were ordered released. They then filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county and won.
  • The county took the case to the Supreme Court in November, reports the Lincoln Journal Star. The federal jury had in 2009 determined the sheriff's deputy and reserve sheriff's deputy at the time had violated the group's rights. Their argument was that law enforcement should have been judged on the facts known at the time of the crime, not decades later.

  • "The only option left is paying on it," State Sen. Myron Dorn tells the Omaha World-Herald, which runs down the steps the county has taken to be able to do that. Property taxes were upped in September to the maximum level permitted by the state. The 11.76-cent increase will generate roughly $3.8 million in revenue in 2019 and is expected to be kept in place seven more years.
  • The Journal Star reports the county's insurance carriers won't help pay the judgment, a decision that was upheld by a judge last fall. The county is appealing.
  • Dorn is also pushing a trio of bills related to federal judgments that, if successful, could see a half-cent sales tax enacted, make the county eligible for a low-interest loan from the state, or file a claim with the state for financial assistance.
  • The county is home to 22,311 people. One resident's view, per the World-Herald: "The people of Gage County are just as innocent as the Beatrice Six."
  • For more on the case, read the Post's story in full here. It explains why White and Taylor were originally arrested, and how a quest to find a suspect with type B blood led to four more arrests.
(Read more Beatrice Six stories.)

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