Two people falsely convicted in the 1985 murder of Helen Wilson were granted a total of $800,000 in Gage County District Court on Thursday.
Judge Daniel E. Bryan Jr. awarded Ada JoAnn Taylor the maximum $500,000 and James Dean $300,000 under the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act of 2009.
Taylor spent nearly 20 years in prison and Dean nearly 5 1/2 after pleading guilty in the 1985 rape and murder of the 65-year-old Beatrice widow in her downtown apartment.
They were two of six people arrested four years after Wilson's death and sent to prison for it.
Five entered pleas in the case, and Joseph White was convicted at trial of first-degree murder, in part by testimony from Taylor, Dean and co-defendant Debra Shelden.
White fought for DNA testing and in 2008, results of tests on evidence from the decades-old crime scene showed that drifter Bruce Allen Smith -- an early suspect in the case but ruled out by blood tests done at the time -- raped and murdered Wilson.
After that, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning's staff was part of a task force that re-opened the investigation into Wilson's death. Initially, authorities said, their goal was to tie Smith to the six people already convicted.
Instead, the work led to complete exoneration of them.
"I believe without a doubt that these six people are completely innocent," Bruning said when commenting in 2008 on the likelihood his colleagues on the Nebraska Board of Pardons would vote to pardon them.
The follow-up investigation and examination of more than 5,000 pages of documents from the original case revealed evidence that Gage County used questionable interrogation techniques and that Sheriff's Deputy Burdette Searcey was so eager to solve the cold case he hounded his top suspect -- Joseph White -- and either missed or ignored evidence that supported his innocence.
Further, psychologist Wayne Price worked both as a sheriff's deputy and a mental health counselor who provided therapy for two of the six before they were arrested and then met with five of them as a deputy, violating professional psychology standards.
During the Sept. 10-14 hearing on Taylor and Dean's request for compensation, Bruning's office defended the state in its attempt to deny the payment.
On Thursday, Bruning released a statement saying his office will appeal Judge Bryan's decision.
“Mr. Dean and Ms. Taylor provided false testimony that led to the conviction of an innocent man,” he said. “We continue to believe the Nebraska Legislature did not intend to provide recovery to those who commit perjury under the Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act. We will appeal this decision.”
In his opinion issued Thursday morning, Judge Bryan cited testimony by false confession expert Dr. Richard A. Leo during a five-day hearing earlier this month. Leo told the court Taylor and Dean were persuaded into implicating themselves in the crime.
“(Both Taylor and Dean) did not commit or suborn perjury, fabricate evidence, or otherwise make a false statement to cause or bring about her conviction or the conviction of another,” Bryan wrote in his opinion. “(Taylor and Dean’s) statements … were not a result of physical force by law enforcement, but were caused by law enforcement’s improper investigative practices and procedures.”
Bryan also noted Leo’s testimony that Taylor was “susceptible to suggestions of those in authority and trust” and that she had suffered from abuse, mental illness and limited intellect.
“Taylor did then and still believes she had something to do with Wilson’s murder,” the judge said. “She was pardoned and released which left her confused, as it did everyone involved in the case.”
Dean had a history of memory problems and began to distrust his own recollections, Bryan wrote, and was “very vulnerable to influence from external sources.”
A polygraph test administered to Dean was “poisoned” by law enforcement and made Dean more compliant in implicating himself and others, the judge said.
“The mistakes made by law enforcement in their own procedures and practices created in him a false, but nevertheless real belief that he was involved in the Wilson murder,” Bryan wrote.
In all, the state has paid more than $1 million to three of the so-called Beatrice 6: White, Thomas Winslow and Kathy Gonzalez.
Winslow and Gonzalez pleaded guilty to reduced charges, but did not directly implicate White in Wilson's death.
White went home to Alabama after he was released from prison and died last year in a workplace accident at a steel mill.
Shelden has a claim against the state pending in court.
In Thursday's ruling, Bryan wrote that he was surprised the Nebraska Legislature placed a cap on damages in such cases. The Wrongful Convictions Act was passed after the six defendants were exonerated.
“To try to attempt to place any value on one’s liberty to be free is a Herculean task,” he said.