BEATRICE, Neb. — A sheriff's psychologist with an unusual role in a notorious wrongful conviction case took the witness stand Tuesday as two members of the Beatrice 6 continued their quest for state compensation.
Dr. Wayne Price, a psychologist who has worked as a part-time Gage County sheriff's deputy for nearly four decades, said he always made it clear to the two defendants that he was working as a cop, not their doctor.
Ada JoAnn Taylor and James Dean are each seeking $500,000 in compensation for their wrongful convictions and prison sentences in the 1985 murder of Helen Wilson, 68, of Beatrice.
The state is fighting Taylor and Dean's claims because the law prevents payment to those who lie under oath. Taylor and Dean confessed to the crime and gave perjured testimony at the trial of a co-defendant.
During two hours of testimony Tuesday, Price said he holds an unusual position as a police psychologist who has law enforcement certification. He also saw patients as clinical director at Blue Valley Mental Health Center.
In layman's terms, he's a shrink with a badge.
After his 1989 arrest in the Wilson case, Dean steadfastly maintained his innocence for 22 days. But his resolve waned after meeting with an out-of-uniform Price on May 2, 1989, a meeting also attended by Dean's court-appointed attorney.
On that day, Price told Dean that he had failed a lie-detector test, suggesting that such tests can “reveal an unconscious level of awareness.”
During the same meeting, Price also broached the possibility that Dean had perhaps repressed memories of the beating, rape and suffocation of Wilson.
Price met with an “extremely distraught” Dean on four other occasions while he was being held at the Gage County Jail. Price said his intent was to help defuse the situation.
“I did not discuss the case with him on these visits,” he said. “I would not.”
Herb Friedman, Dean's lawyer in the civil claim, pointed out that his client — who completed no school beyond the ninth grade — might have had difficulty distinguishing between Price's two professional roles.
As for Taylor, Price said, he had a “strong therapeutic relationship” with her that dated to 1982 when she saw him at the Beatrice clinic. He said Taylor suffered from borderline personality disorder, which included psychotic delusions and hallucinations.
“It's a very fragile condition,” he testified. “Her contact with reality would vary depending on stress.”
Price met with Taylor twice after her 1989 arrest, but he said he made it clear he was not her advocate. The two did not discuss the case, he said.
When questioned by Jeffry Patterson, one of Taylor's lawyers, Price said he never divulged information about her psychological disorders to investigators working the homicide. To do so would have violated doctor-patient confidentiality.
Under cross-examination, Price said he did not hypnotize Taylor or Dean. He also testified that he did not participate in police interrogations of them or suggest they could recover repressed memories by using “dream therapy.”
Both Dean and another co-defendant had testified they remembered details of the crime through their dreams.
DNA testing unavailable at the time of the original investigation overturned the convictions and later prompted the state to grant all six defendants formal pardons.
The tests showed that blood and semen recovered from the crime scene belonged to a former Beatrice resident, Bruce Allen Smith, who died of AIDS in 1992 in Oklahoma City.
Taylor, who had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, served nearly 20 years in prison. Dean pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and spent 5½ years behind bars.
Nebraska has paid more than $1 million combined to three of the former defendants: Joseph White, Kathy Gonzalez and Thomas Winslow. Debra Shelden, the sixth person convicted in the case, has a compensation claim pending in court.
Taylor and Dean are trying to show they were coerced into making false confessions by their police interrogators, who pressured them with the threat of the death penalty.
While Attorney General Jon Bruning was a strong advocate for pardoning the Beatrice 6, he must enforce provisions of a 2009 state law regarding compensation for the wrongly convicted. That law prohibits payments to those who commit perjury.
Gage County Sheriff's Deputy Burt Searcey, the lead investigator in the case, spent about six hours on the witness stand Monday and Tuesday.
During hostile questioning by lawyers for Taylor and Dean, Searcey often said he could not recall details about his investigation. He frequently gave vague, noncommittal answers.
By asking Searcey about some of his nearly 25-year-old reports, the lawyers were able to show several factual errors and omissions about key witness statements.
But on cross examination, Searcey said he never told Dean or Taylor to lie about their involvement in the killing. Nor did he threaten them or alter information in his reports in an effort to frame them with a crime they didn't commit, he said.
“I can't say something they didn't say,” Searcey testified.
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