Beatrice wrongful conviction case goes to jury

2014-01-27T17:30:00Z 2014-01-27T21:29:06Z Beatrice wrongful conviction case goes to juryBy LORI PILGER / Lincoln Journal Star

Calling it one of the worst travesties in the state and possibly the nation, Beatrice 6 attorneys Monday asked a jury to hold three men accountable for the cold-case investigation that sent six innocent people to prison for a Beatrice woman's 1985 murder.

"It is up to you today to pass judgment for what you have seen," attorney Maren Chaloupka said in closing arguments of the three-week trial.

She said Gage County investigators recklessly prioritized closing Helen Wilson's 1985 murder above seeking justice, then rejected any responsibility for the fact that they sent six innocent people to prison for murder.

"And we are not going to let Jerry DeWitt, Wayne Price and Burdette Searcey get away with this." Chaloupka said.

By the end of closing arguments, co-counsel would ask the jury to award at least $14 million in damages to Joseph White, Tom Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathy Gonzalez for the 77 years they spent in prison before DNA testing on evidence led to their exoneration.

Attorneys for then-Gage County Sheriff DeWitt, who since has died; Deputy Searcey, who led the 1989 investigation; and part-time Deputy Price, who also is a psychologist and interviewed some of the six, stood behind their work.

And they challenged the innocence of the six, suggesting that Bruce Allen Smith, the man later tied to the crime by DNA, could have gone to Wilson's Beatrice apartment after she was killed overnight Feb. 5, 1985.

"The fact is we don't know who killed Mrs. Wilson based on the evidence before you," attorney Patrick O'Brien said.

And that's not this jury's job, he said.

Nonetheless, it's at the heart of the federal case, despite the fact that in 2008, for the first time ever in Nebraska, DNA testing led to pardons for five of the six after a task force led by the Nebraska Attorney General's Office concluded that Smith, a drifter from Oklahoma who died in 1992, had acted alone.

The state dropped the charges against White, who was the only one who did not enter a plea and was convicted at trial.

The six sued in federal court alleging the investigation violated their civil rights, which set up the trial that began Jan. 6. White since has died but his estate is a party in the suit.

Now, it's the jury's duty to determine whether the evidence proved that Searcey, Price and DeWitt conducted a reckless investigation or manufactured false evidence against the six.

Jurors got the case at 1:11 p.m. Monday and deliberated until 5 without reaching a verdict.

O'Brien said his clients were not reckless.

"I have always asked throughout the case, 'What did we make up?'" he said. "What evidence did we create, somehow seemingly conjure out of thin air."

He said the three followed the investigation where the evidence led them. They didn't make up facts, O'Brien said, and Price didn't plant false memories.

Three of the six confessed and implicated others, after all, he said. He acknowledged there had been inconsistencies, but said there always are.

O'Brien, instead, found fault with the Beatrice Police Department, which he said led an investigation with "blinders on."

In 1985, they did 319 tests looking for a Type B non-secreter to match blood and semen left in Wilson's apartment.

Beatrice 6 attorney Jeffry Patterson pointed to the same blood and semen evidence left at the scene as proof Searcey and others failed to look at what was right in front of their faces by ignoring the science and going ahead with the prosecution of people they knew didn't match.

Instead, Patterson said, they convinced two extremely vulnerable people, Dean and Shelden, that their dreams were real. They denied they knew anything about the crime, but, after talking with Price, became convinced that their "memories" had come back in their dreams.

"It's just incredible to think that this is not reckless conduct," Patterson said.

He said to continue to think that the six were in Wilson's small apartment but left no evidence behind was just absurd.

Then, Patterson's colleague Doug Stratton made a final, impassioned plea.

"Beatrice 6 is a nice label," he said. "But it's six individuals with six individual lives and families and hopes and dreams that were taken by this reckless investigation and put in jail for over 77 years."

On behalf of them, Stratton said, he had one last request: "At long last, do justice."

​Reach Lori Pilger at 402-473-7237 or or follow her on Twitter at LJSpilger.

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Lincoln Murders, 2001-present

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Cases classified as murders by local law enforcement under the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system, which does not include deaths caused by negligence, suicide, accident or justifiable homicide. Cases may be reclassified upon resolution.

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