LINCOLN — The State of Nebraska pardoned and paid them for their wrongful convictions.
Now members of the “Beatrice Six” have a chance to prove in federal court that investigators intentionally used false evidence to convict them of murder more than two decades ago.
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis on Monday preserved the civil rights claims made by five of the six people wrongly convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of a Beatrice widow. The decision means the cases can proceed to jury trials in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.
In a pair of strongly worded opinions, the appeals court judges said that evidence shows that investigators made more than simple mistakes in an effort to solve a horrendous crime.
“A fact finder could reasonably infer defendants' actions shocked the conscience,” Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote for the panel.
The five plaintiffs, who all served prison time for the death of 68-year-old Helen Wilson, are seeking unspecified monetary damages from Gage County. The lawsuits, which allege violations of the constitutional right to due process, also name several current and former members of the Sheriff's Office.
“They are obviously gratified to have their day in court,” said Lincoln attorney Robert Bartle, who is representing four of the five plaintiffs in the case.
Lincoln attorney Paul L. Douglas, one of the lawyers representing the county and its law enforcement officials, said Monday that he planned to meet with his clients before deciding whether to issue a statement.
The case now in federal court came about after DNA testing in 2008 [--] unavailable at the time of the murder showed that Wilson was raped and killed by an Oklahoma City man who died in 1992. A subsequent investigation exonerated the six of any involvement in Wilson's death, and they were granted pardons by Nebraska's highest elected officials.
One federal claim was brought by Joseph White, the only one of the accused to maintain his innocence. White's lawsuit alleges that the sheriff's deputies manipulated his co-defendants into creating a theory of the killing unsupported by physical evidence. White, who had served nearly 20 years of a life sentence when he won his release, also accused authorities of ignoring evidence that could have exonerated him.
“Ultimately, White was placed in the nightmare scenario of having to maintain his innocence in the face of five co-defendants who were systematically manipulated or convinced into falsely accusing White of rape and murder,” Shepherd stated.
The appeals court affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Warren Urbom
The other federal claim involves Ada JoAnn Taylor, Kathleen Gonzalez, James Dean and Thomas Winslow, who appealed a lower court decision that dismissed their case. The appeals court reversed the part of U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf's ruling that found that the investigators couldn't be blamed for relying on the false statements of witnesses.
“The evidence allows a reasonable inference that defendants' investigation crossed the line from gross negligence to recklessness and that the defendants manufactured false evidence to complete their investigation,” Shepherd wrote.
The four former defendants reached plea bargains that required their cooperation with the prosecution in exchange for reduced charges. Taylor and Dean both testified against White at his trial.
The panel upheld the part of Kopf's earlier ruling determining that those who gave false confessions were not unconstitutionally coerced.
The three-judge panel qualified its findings somewhat, indicating that at this stage, it is obligated to view the facts in the light “most favorable” to the plaintiffs.
The appeals were argued before the panel in April.
The defendants in the civil rights lawsuits are former Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, Burt Searcey, the lead investigator in the case, and Wayne Price, a psychologist and part-time deputy who had professionally treated several of the accused before the Wilson homicide. Both Price and Searcey continue to work in the Sheriff's Office.
The remaining defendant is former deputy Gerald Lamkin.
Former Gage County Attorney Richard Smith was granted immunity and dismissed from the civil rights claims.
Nebraska has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to White, Gonzalez and Winslow under a state law that allows the wrongfully convicted to seek compensation. Taylor and Dean recently won similar claims in Gage County District Court, but the state is appealing because they gave perjured testimony at White's trial.
White, who died in a workplace accident in 2011 while living in his home state of Alabama, is now represented in the case by his mother.
Debra Shelden, the sixth former defendant, has filed separate lawsuits in state and federal courts and was not party to the cases ruled upon Monday.
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