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LEADING OFF | MADE FOR MURDER

Leading Off: HBO documentary on Beatrice Six reopens a wound that just won't heal

From the What you missed this week in notable Southeast Nebraska crimes and court cases series
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From acclaimed filmmaker Nanfu Wang, the HBO Original six-part documentary series #MindOverMurder chronicles the bizarre and psychologically complex story of six individuals who were convicted for the 1985 murder of a beloved 68- year-old grandmother, Helen Wilson, in Beatrice, Nebraska. Despite five of the individuals originally confessing to the crime, the “Beatrice Six” as they became known, were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2009, a turn of events that divided the rural town and incensed the family of Helen Wilson. As the filmmakers track the case from the murder, through investigation, trial, exoneration and two civil suits, shifting perspectives cloud the truth; a stranger-than-fiction tale emerges that raises salient questions about the reliability of confessions and memory in criminal cases.

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How many times can a scab be ripped away before the wound goes numb, leaving an angry scar as a constant reminder — or worse, gets badly infected, causing pain and discomfort to the rest of the body?

The scab in Beatrice, Nebraska — population 12,669 — has been torn off too many times to count since February 1985, when 68-year-old Helen Wilson was raped, tortured and killed in her apartment.

What's left is a small American town that could serve as the landscape for a Stephen King novel, a "nice enough town," as one person said in the opening of HBO's six-part series, "Mind Over Murder," which premiered with its first episode on Monday, but make no mistake, a town "with a weird undercurrent."

Where else would the community playhouse turn perhaps the town's most divisive and devastating tragedy ever into an on-stage production? Too soon or not, there's no denying the truth is often stranger than fiction — even in the theater business.

HBO docuseries explores 'Beatrice 6' convictions, exonerations

A collage of images, articles and photos gathered in producing “Mind Over Murder,” which examines the conviction and exoneration of six defendants in the murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson, of Beatrice. Many Nebraskans know the case of the “Beatrice 6.”

There are some things that can't be made up.

Beatrice's "weird undercurrent" stems from a confluence of investigatory mishaps that have been well-documented by the media, a case that has been litigated by the highest courts in the land and, ultimately, a reversal of the verdict against a group now known as the Beatrice Six that nearly bankrupted a county and has torn apart a population about what really happened, about whether justice was really served from the start.

"There's a mixed reaction," said Lincoln attorney Richard Schmeling, who represented James Dean, one of the Beatrice Six, and will be featured later in the documentary. "… I think the people who went through it here would be split in their opinion."

And the play, an attempt by the Beatrice Community Players to heal the town, plays an integral role — a prevailing theme — to the documentary.

The story is compelling. It's captivating. It's heart-wrenching and teeth-gnashing. It's a gut punch and a cold slap of reality that our justice system is rigged against those without the intelligence or financial means to fight it. 

Schmeling said he thought he was doing his part to ensure that his client would receive the best counsel afforded him by his constitutional rights.

He handled Dean's case through the plea agreement and sentencing, and appealed the case before the Nebraska Supreme Court. 

And when it was determined several years later that the police investigation was a sham, and that five confessions were coerced by the threat of the death penalty, Schmeling took on a new role: witness in the civil trial against the government.

And that made him a good source for the folks at HBO.

"A lot of the questions they asked me about were if the county attorney played straight with me or did he withhold information," Schmeling said Monday, just hours before the show aired for the first time. "Unfortunately, he withheld information that could have helped me in the defense of the case."

Schmeling didn't know it in real time. He only learned of how deep the corruption was when he was preparing to testify in the civil suit.

"There was a lot of information that I was not aware of at the time I was doing the criminal end of things," he said. 

For example, psychologist Wayne Price was acting under the theory that the crime was horrific enough to cause everyone involved to have repressed memories of the details.

Meanwhile, Schmeling said that Burt Searcey, the former Beatrice cop who started investigating the case privately before joining the Gage County Sheriff's office, was feeding his client information about the case.

"My guy suddenly — miraculously — started remembering," Schmeling said. "They did that with all six defendants essentially."

But how? How does a man with no ties to a crime cop to it?

James Dean was "marginally" mentally disabled, Schmeling said. "He kind of floated around with the scum down there in Beatrice and he wasn’t very sophisticated at all."

Investigators feasted on that. More important, they scared each defendant with threats of the death penalty, Schmeling said. 

"They hammered everybody in the case with the death penalty," he said. "You better tell us what you know, you better come clean, or you’re going to end up in the electric chair.

"That was frightening to my guy."

Eventually, they started playing the six against each other. When one guy agreed to testify, they all caved — all but Joseph White, who went to trial and was found guilty.

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In 2008, DNA evidence proved that Bruce Allen Smith, a suspect at the start, had actually done the crime.

The documentary is worth a watch. It leaves no stone unturned in its delivery. And yet, there's something that makes it cringeworthy. 

Maybe it just hits too close to home.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or psangimino@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @psangimino

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