LINCOLN — Lois White wept in 1989 when her son was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
She rejoiced in 2008 when DNA testing of crime scene evidence confirmed what Joseph E. White always insisted: He was innocent.
On Thursday, she sounded disappointed but undaunted by the hung jury that ended the federal civil rights trial against the sheriff's deputies who arrested her late son.
“If it can bring justice for Joe, I'll go through it a dozen more times,” she said from her home in Holly Pond, Ala.
One of the jurors told The World-Herald there was general agreement that a reckless investigation sent six people to prison for a 1985 rape and murder in Beatrice they did not commit.
Yet it wasn't enough to salvage a verdict.
Reaching unanimous agreement on the question of whether Gage County sheriff's investigators manufactured evidence looked like it would prove impossible, said juror Bob Bade of Lincoln.
The Beatrice Six deserved compensation for the more than 70 years they served collectively in prison, Bade said. But the jury never reached agreement on the claims, so they never discussed monetary damages in detail.
“I wish our part of the justice system could have come to a conclusion so they could put this behind them,” Bade said, referring to the six.
When polled on the afternoon of their fourth day of deliberations, seven of the 12 said they did not think they could reach a unanimous verdict. So Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf granted a motion by the defendants and declared a mistrial.
“When he decided to call a mistrial, I did cry because I felt like I'd failed,” said jury forewoman Jan Anderson of St. Paul, Neb.
The lawsuit sought millions of dollars in damages against sheriff's deputies Burt Searcey and Wayne Price, who were central to the investigation. It also named the estate of Jerry DeWitt, who was sheriff at the time of the investigation. Earlier in the trial, the judge dismissed Gage County as a defendant.
Based on questioning of the jurors in court, they sounded divided on the question of liability against the deputies and the late sheriff, said Jennifer Tomka, one of the deputies' lawyers.
“It was obviously split,” she said.
The mistrial was a blow to the estate of White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathleen Gonzalez. Robert Bartle, one of their lawyers, said they will seek another trial.
“Every step of the case has been hard for them,” Bartle said. “Nothing comes easily, and that includes justice in federal court.”
The lawsuit stemmed from the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson, a 68-year-old widow who lived in a small Beatrice apartment. After the initial investigation went cold, the Sheriff's Office reopened the case and arrested the six in 1989.
Based largely on the confessions of three defendants, authorities alleged two of the men raped the victim while one of the women suffocated her with a pillow.
White was the only one to refuse a plea bargain.
Taylor, Shelden and Dean cut deals with the prosecution and testified against White. Gonzalez and Winslow did not implicate White at trial, but they took plea deals to reduce their sentences.
After years in prison, White won a hard-fought court case to have crime scene evidence examined with DNA testing that didn't exist at the time of his trial. Tests on more than 40 samples of blood and semen evidence in 2008 failed to find a match with any of the six.
White, Winslow and Taylor, still in prison at the time of the DNA results, were released.
A task force led by Attorney General Jon Bruning reopened the case and determined that the DNA matched only two people: the victim and Bruce Allen Smith, who died in Oklahoma in 1992. A former Beatrice resident who was passing through town, Smith had been dropped off about a block from the victim's apartment the night of the murder.
Smith emerged as a suspect shortly after the homicide, and Beatrice police obtained hair, saliva and blood from him at that time. A mistake on a blood test led police to rule him out in 1985, but they kept his samples, which allowed the task force to test his DNA more than two decades later.
Bruning's investigators ruled out the possibility that Smith was an unnamed “seventh” perpetrator. The state then officially pardoned the former defendants.
It marked the first time DNA testing had been used in Nebraska to overturn felony convictions.
Those who cooperated with the prosecution said they gave false confessions after they were pressured and threatened by authorities. They also alleged they were fed details about the crime scene by deputies.
The investigators argued the suspects gave the statements voluntarily and later swore under oath they were telling the truth.
The case prompted state lawmakers to pass a bill to compensate the wrongly convicted.
Nebraska has since paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to White, Winslow and Gonzalez.
A state judge awarded similar payments to Taylor and Dean. The attorney general has appealed those awards because the two committed perjury when they testified against White. Shelden's claim for state compensation is pending.
The federal lawsuits have been moving through the courts for nearly 4½ years. Over that time, White died in a workplace accident in his home state of Alabama.
The seven men and five women heard 15 days of testimony and were provided hundreds of pages of police reports and court documents along with videotaped interrogations.
Bade, one of the jurors, said they spent some of the roughly 20 hours of deliberations poring over the evidence. While there was some personality conflict early on, it dissipated over time, he said.
Another juror, who asked not to be identified, said there was no debate over the innocence of the six. They focused, instead, on the investigation that put the six in prison.
The jury was instructed to determine if each of the three defendants was liable for a reckless investigation and manufacturing evidence against each of the six plaintiffs. That equated to three dozen individual verdicts, Bade said, which proved too difficult.
“The biggest obstacle was we had 36 decisions to make,” he said. “It was just a monumental task.”
Stay with Omaha.com for more on this developing story.