BEATRICE, Neb. — Deputy Burt Searcey put six people in prison nearly 25 years ago for the rape and murder of a 68-year-old Beatrice woman.
On Monday, Searcey found himself on the witness stand in a civil trial, defending his discredited investigation as two wrongly convicted former defendants seek up to $1 million in compensation from the state.
James Dean and Ada JoAnn Taylor listened intently Monday as the man who put them behind bars tried to respond to an onslaught of questions from their lawyers. It was the first day of what is expected to be a weeklong trial before Gage County District Judge Daniel Bryan Jr.
Dean and Taylor allege that Searcey and other law enforcement officials coerced them into making false confessions. They are two of the so-called Beatrice 6, all of whom served time for the 1985 slaying of Helen Wilson. In 2008, DNA testing not available in the late 1980s unraveled their convictions by proving that Wilson was killed by a lone male assailant.
“It's hard to imagine how an abomination like this occurred in this state,” said Lincoln attorney Herb Friedman, who is representing Dean.
Dean and Taylor are each seeking $500,000, the maximum amount for wrongly convicted defendants under a 2009 Nebraska law. Their case marks the first time such a claim has gone to trial.
Although Attorney General Jon Bruning agrees that the defendants were wrongfully prosecuted, he has fought compensation for Dean and Taylor because they gave false testimony on the witness stand.
Many investigators worked on the case, but none was more involved than Searcey.
Wearing his Gage County sheriff deputy's uniform, Searcey struggled on the stand to recall details of the long-ago investigation. For example, he gave the wrong date for when Wilson's body was discovered in her Beatrice apartment.
More problematic was a series of answers about a confidential informant on whom Searcey relied to build his case. Jeffry Patterson, a Lincoln attorney representing Taylor, pointed to places in Searcey's reports where the informant was wrong about facts.
For example, the informant said that as she watched police enter Wilson's apartment building at 7:30 a.m. on the morning her body was found, Taylor came up to her and admitted to the slaying. However, the discovery of Wilson's body wasn't reported to police until two hours later.
“It would be a typographical error,” Searcey said.
Patterson then produced a second report in which the investigator repeated the 7:30 time. After several more tense exchanges, Searcey said the informant appeared to be wrong about the timing of her conversation with Taylor.
Under further questioning, it became clear Searcey was either unaware of the error or failed to correct it. Patterson went through several other examples.
Taylor and Dean are attempting to show how Searcey acted on facts that fit his theory of the slaying but ignored information that conflicted with it.
The two pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for their testimony against Joseph White, the only defendant who maintained his innocence in the case. Taylor spent more than 19 years in prison. Dean served nearly 5½ years.
White, the man they helped convict, was sentenced to life in prison. He won his release and exoneration when the DNA tests showed that Wilson was raped and killed by Bruce Allen Smith of Oklahoma City. He died of AIDS in 1992.
The DNA tests and subsequent investigation by multiple agencies also exonerated Taylor, Dean and the three other defendants. All have since been pardoned.
The case marked the first time DNA led to a criminal exoneration in Nebraska.
Nebraska has paid more than $1 million in compensation to White, Thomas Winslow and Kathy Gonzalez. Debra Shelden, the sixth defendant, also is seeking compensation. Her case is pending.
The issue to be decided by the judge is whether the false testimony by Dean and Taylor bars them from receiving compensation.
Lincoln attorney Bob Bartle, who also is representing Taylor, said his client's first statement to interrogators didn't remotely resemble the testimony she eventually gave in court.
He pointed to videotaped interrogations in which investigators fed Taylor details of the crime.
At least two psychologists diagnosed Taylor with mental illness and psychotic delusions. She was interrogated by Wayne Price, a psychologist who had previously treated Taylor and who also worked part time as a Gage County sheriff's deputy.
Dean, meanwhile, initially denied any involvement in the crime. Interrogators said others had implicated him, and a lie detector examiner told him he failed his test.
Even Dean's former defense lawyer believed he was guilty and gave him crime scene information so he could shape a story consistent with other witnesses, Friedman said.
He also said that Price, the psychologist involved in Taylor's case, convinced Dean that he had repressed memories of the crime and suggested that he could recall them with “dream therapy.”
Dean, 48, works as a truck driver in Salina, Kan. Taylor, 49, lives in a homeless shelter in Hendersonville, N.C., according to court documents.
Last year, a federal judge dismissed wrongful-conviction lawsuits filed by Taylor, Dean, Gonzalez and Winslow in U.S. District Court in Omaha. The judge said there was no evidence that investigators illegitimately threatened the plaintiffs or fabricated evidence.
A federal claim by White's estate is pending.
In March 2011, shortly after he learned he would receive $500,000 from Nebraska, White, 48, died in a work accident at an Alabama coal-processing plant.
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