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Beatrice 6

The six people convicted and later cleared of killing Helen Wilson in 1985: (from top left) Joseph White, Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor, Deb Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

The United States Supreme Court will let stand a Nebraska federal jury’s $28.1 million verdict against Gage County for a cold-case investigation that sent six people to prison for another man's brutal slaying of a Beatrice woman in 1985.

In November, the county asked the nation's highest court to review the federal civil rights case — its last legal option — arguing the sheriff’s investigators at the head of the 1989 investigation should be judged on what was known then, not now.

Years later, DNA testing on blood and semen evidence left in Helen Wilson’s apartment tied Bruce Allen Smith, who died in an Oklahoma prison in 1992, to her rape and murder.

By then, Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden had spent a combined 75 years in prison.

"Our clients have waited a very long time for this day,” Maren Chaloupka, the lead attorney for the six, said Monday.

Joseph White's mother, Lois White, reached by phone in Holly Pond, Alabama, said she didn't ever count on seeing any of the money. It was about more than that for her.

"My main objective in all of it was to see that his name was cleared and that the folks that put him through all that were held up to the light for the world to see," she said.

From the beginning, her son maintained his innocence, even as the others took deals to testify against him in exchange for reduced charges. Then, from inside a prison cell, he fought for, and got, the DNA testing that ultimately would clear them all and win his release.

Less than three years later, in 2011, he died in a workplace incident and Lois White joined the lawsuit on his behalf. She said she tried not to think about it much and just let God take care of everything. Now, she's glad it's over.

She said she feels for the people of Gage County "because it wasn't their fault."

But they have to come up with something, Lois White said, so law enforcement knows what happened isn't OK.

In 2008, state prosecutors said they believed the six had nothing to do with the crime. They were exonerated, and in 2009, sued Gage County for the reckless investigation that landed them in prison.

After a mistrial, a federal jury found enough evidence that then-deputy Burdette Searcey and then-reserve deputy Wayne Price had violated their rights, awarding them a combined $28.1 million.

Gage County appealed the decision to a three-judge panel from the 8th Circuit Court, but the panel affirmed the jury verdict in June. The 8th Circuit later rejected Gage County's petition for the appeal to be heard by the full court in July, leaving the Supreme Court as the county's only option remaining.

"We knew it was a really long shot when we went there," said state Sen. Myron Dorn, who served on the Gage County Board of Supervisors from 2010 to 2018 before winning election to the District 30 seat in the Legislature.

"Still, it was one of those things that until you've exhausted every avenue, you felt you hadn't done your due diligence," he added.

Even as the case moved through the court system, Gage County began taking steps to pay the judgment.

Last September, the Gage County board raised the county's property tax levy to the state-mandated lid of 50 cents per $100 of valuation.

That will raise roughly $3.8 million in property taxes to put toward the judgment each year and likely remain in place until 2027; Gage County has not yet made its first payment.

That could happen as early as May, when the first half of 2019's property tax revenues are collected.

Meanwhile, Dorn has sponsored legislation that would give Gage County additional avenues to pursue in paying the judgment:

* LB472 would allow Nebraska counties to collect sales tax for the purpose of paying federal judgments. The bill has been referred to the Revenue Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

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* LB473, which was heard by the Revenue Committee on Feb. 28, allows political subdivisions to apply for a low-interest loan from the state in order to pay judgments made in federal court.

* LB474, which had a hearing in the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 21, would add federal court judgments and jury verdicts made in wrongful conviction cases to the list of claims that could be filed with the State Claims Board.

The Supreme Court's denial of Gage County's petition adds urgency, Dorn said, as farmers and ranchers already feeling crushed under the weight of property taxes in a sluggish agricultural economy have decried the federal jury's decision as serving justice to the six while creating an additional injustice to the taxpayers.

"It does bring into focus that there is a need for help in paying this," Dorn said. "And we'll see if we can get some state assistance to help, because it's quite a load, quite a large amount to put on one county."

Gage County also sought relief in state courts against two insurance carriers who denied the county coverage in the case.

A Lancaster County judge ruled in two separate lawsuits last fall that insurance policies from both carriers — the Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association and Employer's Mutual Casualty — were either not in effect or didn't apply to the judgment.

Gage County has appealed the ruling in the Employer's Mutual Casualty case; briefs are due in the suit in coming weeks.

Current county officials declined to comment Monday, saying they would wait until the county board's March 13 meeting to issue a statement.

Reflecting on the Supreme Court's decision Monday, Randall Ritnour, who was the Gage County attorney in 2008, said he remembered being shocked when results of DNA testing identified Smith alone.

They had tested more than 40 pieces of evidence, including items that contained blood that some of the five who took pleas claimed to be their own.

Ritnour said they had believed the Beatrice 6 were guilty and the task force had been created to prove it once and for all.

"But after our investigation of the physical evidence, it was clear that those confessions were false," he said. "Once we reviewed the videos of the interrogations, we knew why."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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