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Gage County and the people behind a cold-case investigation that sent six innocent people to prison for a 1985 rape and murder are on the hook for $28.1 million following a federal jury's verdict Wednesday.

Jeff Patterson, an attorney for the six convicted of a crime later tied by DNA to another man, said the jury's award puts the blame for the wrongful convictions where it belongs: on investigators.

But it was just a step, he said, suggesting an appeal is expected.

Jennifer Tomka, an attorney on the other side, would only say that it's too early to comment and that she needs to talk to county officials.

Shortly before 11 a.m. on the fourth day of deliberations, word began to spread through the federal courthouse that the jury had reached a verdict.

Neither the plaintiffs nor defendants were in the fifth-floor courtroom 20 minutes later to hear Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf read the 14-page verdict form.

Jurors found Gage County liable, and they found Sheriff's Deputy Burt Searcey, who led the investigation, and Dr. Wayne Price, a psychologist and reserve deputy, individually liable for leading a reckless investigation and manufacturing false evidence.

The jury found Gage County, plus Searcey and Price individually, owe damages of $28,105,000 — $7.3 million each to Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor and Joseph White's estate. 

The three each spent nearly 20 years in prison before DNA testing in 2008 connected another man, Bruce Allen Smith, to Helen Wilson's brutal death. By then, Smith had died.

Of the remaining $6.2 million, jurors awarded $2,190,000 each to James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez, who served about five years in prison, and $1,825,000 to Debra Shelden, who served less than five years.

After they were cleared in Wilson's death, the six sued the county, the deputies and late Gage County Sheriff Jerry DeWitt for building a case on inconsistent statements, coerced false confessions and testimony about "memories," which came to co-defendants in nightmares after working with Price, who had treated at least two of them previously.

All but White entered pleas, and Taylor, Dean and Shelden testified against him at trial, saying they recalled the chaotic scene in Wilson's tiny Beatrice apartment after talking with Price in jail.

Ultimately, White's conviction was overturned and the other five were pardoned.

Their first civil trial, in January 2014, ended with a deadlocked jury. The second started June 6.

At the end of four weeks, it was for the jury to decide whether Searcey, Price and DeWitt's estate were individually liable for leading a reckless investigation, manufacturing false evidence or conspiring to do either, and whether Gage County should be liable, too, because the sheriff had established a policy by his words or actions which allowed it to happen.

The jury cleared DeWitt's estate of liability and found there was no conspiracy but ruled against the county on behalf of each of the six, who sought half a million dollars for each of the roughly 75 years combined they spent in prison — more than $37.5 million total.

Attorney Maren Chaloupka said the six may never see the money but that's not what matters.

“What matters is this jury heard all the evidence and issued a very fair, very specific decision of their judgment of the evidence.”

Chaloupka said it meant a great deal for them to hear that the jury agreed that their lives matter.

Still, she said, she doubts the verdict will change minds in Gage County, where some still believe the six were involved in Wilson’s murder.

But, Chaloupka added, “I hope that those who judged our clients to be guilty will consider that question anew.”

Attorneys for Gage County will have 10 days to file a motion for a new trial or 30 days to file an appeal.

Before he left the courthouse, juror Jason Bartels of Sterling called it a hard-fought battle on both sides.

"We had our hands full," he said. "It wasn't something I took lightly."

Bartels, 29, said he thought the jury treated everybody equally and that he couldn't really blame Searcey, who he described as a bulldog.

Even though they found against him, Price and the county, he said, "We're all humans."

Reached by cellphone Wednesday afternoon, Searcey hung up, then declined to comment in a text.

In a call from Alabama, Joseph White's mother, Lois, said she is relieved the trial is over. She sat through the four-week trial but since has gone home.

"Finally, Gage County and company were being held responsible for what they did to my son and the other five," she said. "I am relieved that this part of it is done, and I'm not worried about the rest of it."

For her, it was about clearing her son's name and maybe keeping the same thing from happening to others.

Joe White went home to Alabama after he was released from prison. He died in a workplace accident there in 2011.

"Joe never stopped fighting for justice," said Patterson, a lead attorney for the six. "And his family, after he passed, never stopped trying to clear his name. That was really as important as anything else."

Asked what he would think if he were alive, Lois White said: "It's about time."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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