LINCOLN — Six people wrongly convicted of a 1985 murder asked a federal jury Monday to hold law enforcement officers accountable.
Two sheriff’s deputies at the center of the investigation asked the same jury to find they did nothing wrong.
At stake is more than the millions of dollars sought by the six, who collectively lost more than 70 years of freedom for the rape and murder of a 68-year-old Beatrice woman.
“At long last, do justice,” said Doug Stratton, one of the attorneys for the Beatrice Six, as he delivered an emotional closing argument at U.S. District Court in Lincoln.
A jury of seven men and five women broke for the day after deliberating about four hours. They continued Tuesday to weigh three weeks of testimony in the first civil rights lawsuit of its kind in Nebraska.
Jurors must determine whether Gage County sheriff’s investigators conducted a reckless investigation or manufactured false evidence in order to scapegoat six people for the slaying of Helen Wilson.
In 2008, DNA testing of blood and semen from the crime scene overturned the convictions and prompted the state to pardon the six. The DNA results matched Bruce Allen Smith, a former Beatrice man who died in 1992 in Oklahoma.
It was the first time DNA testing led to criminal exonerations in Nebraska.
Attorneys for the embattled investigators suggested Monday the DNA tests did not prove the innocence of the six, but only that a seventh person was involved.
“What did we make up?” attorney Patrick O’Brien asked during his closing statement. “What did we create? What evidence did we seemingly conjure out of thin air?”
The lawsuit goes after Burt Searcey and Wayne Price, both of whom continue to serve as Gage County deputies. It also names the estate of Jerry DeWitt, the former sheriff who is now deceased. Earlier in the trial, Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf dismissed Gage County as a defendant.
On Monday, outside the presence of the jury, Kopf told the attorneys sufficient evidence had been presented to conclude the investigation “shocked the conscience.”
Attorneys for the investigators attempted to raise doubt in the minds of jurors by pointing out that not all of the crime scene evidence could be linked to the Oklahoma man.
For example, swabs taken from the victim’s fingernail scrapings and blood found on the wall of her bedroom were inconclusive, so they could not rule out the six.
“We will never know,” said attorney Jennifer Tomka.
She also took jurors through the work done by Searcey, who in 1989 revived an investigation that had gone cold. She described the long list of informants and suspects Searcey interviewed on his way to arresting Joseph E. White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathleen Gonzalez.
They all had legal representation. Most of their statements were videotaped. And investigators did the best they could within the limits of the era, Tomka said.
“No CSI forensic magic was available at that time,” she said.
Attorneys for the six disputed that assertion, saying the blood tests done on bodily fluids in the Beatrice case clearly excluded the six as suspects. Nor was a single fingerprint of any of the suspects found in the apartment.
Searcey and the others knew that, but instead focused on getting confessions from emotionally and intellectually vulnerable defendants, said Maren Chaloupka, one of the attorneys for the six.
“Because without the confessions, the hard, cold facts of science say they didn’t have a case,” she said.
The plaintiffs also argued the evidence shows Price, who served as the department’s forensic psychologist, played a central role in the manufacturing of evidence. When Dean and Shelden said they couldn’t remember what happened in the apartment, Price suggested the memories could reveal themselves in dreams.
Such a suggestion is absurd, said Jeff Patterson, an attorney for the six.
“They weren’t eyewitnesses,” Patterson said. “They were dream witnesses.”
Shelden, Dean and Taylor eventually testified at trial against White, the only one of the six not to plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges. Winslow and Gonzalez did not implicate White, but they did take plea deals.
The attorneys asked jurors Monday to award each of their clients damages ranging from at least $1 million to $5 million for violation of their civil rights.
The five surviving plaintiffs attended all 15 days of the trial. White, who died in a 2011 workplace accident, is represented in the lawsuit by his mother.