BEATRICE -- Attorneys representing six people wrongfully convicted in a 1985 rape and murder of a Beatrice widow Helen Wilson are asking a federal judge to limit insinuations of guilt during a civil jury trial set for early next year.
The so-called Beatrice Six -- Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathy Gonzalez and Debra Shelden -- sued Gage County for what they said was a reckless investigation into the 1985 rape and murder of 68-year-old Wilson that robbed them of their civil rights.
They were cleared of any wrongdoing by the state Board of Pardons in 2008 after DNA evidence from the crime scene showed another man, Bruce Allen Smith, committed the crime. Smith died in 1992.
Earlier this year, an Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge grouped the six lawsuits together and set them for a two-week trial to begin Jan. 6.
On Monday, attorneys representing the six filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf to limit Gage County counsel or witnesses from “arguing or suggesting the plaintiffs (or any one of them) were guilty of participation in the rape and murder of Helen Wilson.”
Shelden’s attorney, Maren Lynn Chaloupka, said in the brief that any notion that the six committed the crime would be irrelevant and distracting.
The case examines whether Gage County law enforcement acted recklessly, manufactured false evidence, used that evidence to coerce guilty pleas and engaged in conduct that shocks the conscience.
“The issues do not include whether plaintiffs -- who have been exonerated by DNA and pardoned by the Nebraska Board of Pardons -- actually ‘did it,’” Chaloupka wrote.
In a footnote, Chaloupka noted that even if one or all of the six were guilty, law enforcement officers are not allowed to manufacture or use false evidence to reach a guilty plea.
“The Bill of Rights does not contain a clause providing that any end justifies such means,” she wrote.
“An ongoing effort to slyly insinuate that plaintiffs ‘did it,’ with the necessary opportunity for plaintiffs to respond to each such sly insinuation, will burn time, effort and focus from the two weeks set aside at trial,” the brief says.
In November, Kopf said in an order he would not tolerate the county mentioning during trial that the six were found guilty.
Counsel for Gage County will have a chance to respond to the brief before Kopf makes a ruling.
In all, the six served 87 years in prison before being exonerated. White, the only one to go to trial, died in 2011 in a work-related accident in Alabama.
White and Taylor were awarded $500,000 for their wrongful convictions, the maximum allowed under Nebraska law. Dean received $300,000; Gonzalez, $350,000; and Winslow, $180,000.
Shelden's case is set for a hearing Wednesday in Nemaha County District Court.