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Justice proved elusive for Joseph White right to the end.

Convicted of a Nebraska murder he did not commit, White spent nearly two decades trying to prove his innocence. On Sunday, about 2 1/2 years after winning his freedom, he was crushed to death by a crane while working at a factory in Alabama.

An overhead crane pinned White, 48, to a catwalk as he was working the third shift at a foundry coke plant in Tarrant, said Pat Curry, chief deputy coroner in Jefferson County, Ala. He died at the scene of blunt force trauma.

In 2008, DNA tests showed White could not have committed the 1985 murder of Beatrice widow Helen Wilson. He became the first person exonerated of murder in Nebraska using DNA testing.

In October, White won a $500,000 settlement from the state for the wrongful conviction. He was still awaiting payment of most of the settlement when he died.

He also had a pending federal lawsuit against Gage County. Robert Bartle, a lawyer in Lincoln who was representing White in the civil claims, was unsure Monday how his client's death would affect the state settlement or the federal lawsuit.

White's death came as a terrible shock to his loved ones, said his mother, Lois White of Holly Pond, Ala. It was especially hard on a son who was an infant when White was arrested in 1989.

"He's very upset," Lois White said of her grandson Brandon Poteet. "Yesterday he said, 'I just got a daddy and now I don't have a daddy again.'"

Joseph White enjoyed his work at the factory and recently had been promoted. The job allowed him to buy the first new car he'd ever owned.

He also was engaged to a former school sweetheart he reconnected with after his release. The wedding was set for May 7.

"It was the happiest he had been in his whole life, really," Lois White said.

In 1989, a jury convicted White of the 1985 sexual assault and murder of Wilson. He was one of six defendants in the case but the only one who refused to plead guilty to reduced charges to avoid the threat of the electric chair.

When he was sentenced to life in prison in 1990, White pledged to one day prove his innocence.

That day came on Oct. 15, 2008, when a judge ordered his release from prison. Previously, DNA tests on blood and semen recovered from the victim's apartment -- samples preserved in a police evidence locker -- proved White could not have attacked the victim, as witnesses had testified at trial.

Using savings from prison jobs, White hired a lawyer and filed motions for the DNA tests. Still, it took three years and a state Supreme Court ruling before he was freed.

"It's been a long, hard road, and I'm glad it's over," he said as he was led out of the courthouse.

White's insistence also benefited the others convicted in the murder. Thomas Winslow and JoAnn Taylor were released from prison and later pardoned. James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathy Gonzalez, who each served about five years, also were pardoned.

Dean, Shelden and Taylor subsequently said they lied to the jury to escape a possible death sentence.

DNA tests proved a single attacker had murdered the 68-year-old woman. Investigators found the perfect genetic match by testing a hair collected from an early suspect, Bruce Smith, a criminal drifter who once lived in Beatrice. Smith died of AIDS in 1992 in Oklahoma City.

In an interview after his release, White refused to blame those who helped convict him. Instead, he faulted those who used the threat of punishment to make a case that lacked hard evidence.

"Those people who testified and lied on the stand were scared. I can understand fear," he said. "When people feel scared, they do anything they can do to feel safe."

White's death saddened his legal team, said Jeff Patterson, a Lincoln lawyer working to help White receive financial compensation.

"He was a really good guy," Patterson said. "It finally seemed like everything was going his way. It's just really sad."

White is survived by his parents, Lois and Carroll White; four siblings; his son; and his fiancée, Paige Lathan. His funeral will be Wednesday, and he will be buried next to a brother who died while White was in prison.

Lois White asked her son's friends and supporters to send memorials to The Innocence Project, a national nonprofit organization that works with DNA testing to help the wrongly convicted.

One thought has given her a little solace the past two days, she said: Her son proved his innocence and won the justice denied him for so long.

"I was so glad that he had this time of happiness and freedom."

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Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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