Gage County will pay roughly $3.8 million a year for the better part of a decade to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 murder in Beatrice.
Seeking justice for the so-called Beatrice 6, who spent a combined 75 years in prison after a county-led investigation violated their civil rights, has created another injustice, Gage County residents told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Right now, Gage County can only collect more in property taxes to pay the $28.1 million judgment and $2 million in attorneys' fees awarded to the six by a U.S. District Court jury in 2016.
The Gage County Board of Supervisors approved a tax hike last year after the county's legal options dwindled, resulting in a 31.5 percent increase to the property tax bills of every landowner in the county.
Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, a former chairman of the Gage County Board, asked the Judiciary Committee to consider a bill (LB474) adding civil judgments made in federal courts to the State Tort Claims Act and the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act.
Gage County briefly explored the option in 2016 in the wake of the judgment, but was told by Attorney General Doug Peterson the state tort claims processes did not apply to judgments awarded in federal court.
Dorn's bill, similar to one introduced two years ago by his predecessor, Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln, would allow political subdivisions to file a claim in cases where federal court determined that a person's rights had been violated, where the judgment exceeds the available financial resources and revenue of political subdivisions, and is made within two years of the final judgment.
"LB474 was brought today to ask for help," Dorn said. "We are all aware of the crisis of property taxes, and now the citizens of Gage County have this additional burden."
Current Gage County Chairman Erich Tiemann told the committee Dorn's bill would potentially provide relief for Gage County, and could help other counties found liable for massive federal judgments in the future.
In Gage County's case, the county was found liable for a reckless 1989 investigation into Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathleen Gonzalez for the rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment.
Five of the six offered false confessions and later testified against White during his jury trial at the end of the cold-case investigation led by former Gage County Deputy Burdette Searcey and Reserve Deputy Wayne Price.
A review of DNA evidence more than 20 years after the crime was committed showed that none of the six were involved, however.
They were exonerated in 2008 and sued Gage County in federal court the next year. The case will finally be settled in coming weeks when the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether to review the matter.
Tiemann said in the future, other counties could find themselves in a situation similar to Gage County, having to pay a large judgment without the resources to do so. He said Dorn's bill would help protect those counties and their taxpayers.
"We realize the state has its own budget shortfalls, and it's always tough because other organizations are always asking for money," Tiemann said. "We also realize you're not required to pay this, but we're coming to you for help."
The multimillion judgment is triple what Gage County usually collects in property taxes and because the county is limited in how it can generate revenue, the onus is put primarily on the 1,300 farmers who own 75 percent of the taxable land there.
Art Nietfeld, a farmer in southern Gage County near the Kansas border, said he will pay an estimated $10,000 more in property taxes each year until the Beatrice 6 judgment is paid off.
"And I sure didn't have anything to do with it," he added.
Other testifiers supporting Dorn's bill echoed Nietfeld's sentiment.
Lyle Koenig, a Beatrice attorney who defended Taylor in 1989, told the committee the county's investigation into the six relied upon using the death penalty — which he pointed out is a state law — to secure their false confessions, while the prosecutor, Dick Smith, was granted prosecutorial immunity by the state, leaving the financial liability to fall on the taxpayers of a single county.
"It appears that Gage County is not capable of paying it," Koenig said. "So if Gage County can't pay it, there is an additional injustice imposed upon these people, namely that they suffered this injustice and they don't recover from it. That's not fair either."
A former District 30 legislative candidate, Don Schuller of Wymore, told the committee the people of Gage County are just as innocent as the Beatrice 6, arguing that the deputies who conducted the cold-case investigation that violated their civil rights were working under state law.
The Nebraska Association of County Officials and the Nebraska Farmer's Union both supported Dorn's bill, saying it would protect counties and taxpayers in specific circumstances.
Although Gage County's legal remedies are largely settled, Dorn said the county is still searching for avenues to pay the six.
Chairman Steve Lathrop on Thursday said the committee was sympathetic to the plight of both the six and Gage County, but didn't offer any promises Dorn's proposal would advance to the floor for a full debate.
"What we can do about it remains to be seen," he said.