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The Beatrice Six were convicted and sent to prison for a 1985 rape and slaying they did not commit. Top, from left: Tom Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor and Debra Shelden. Bottom, from left: Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean and Joseph E. White.

LINCOLN — Gage County reached the end of the line Tuesday on efforts to avoid paying a $28 million judgment to the Beatrice Six.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused the county’s request to put the judgment on hold while it asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

The decision means the county will have to pay the six people wrongfully convicted for a 1985 murder, even if the county proceeds with its last-ditch appeal. The six collectively spent more than 70 years in prison before DNA testing identified another person as the killer.

County Board Chairman Myron Dorn said Tuesday that board members realize that their nine-year legal battle is essentially over. The chances of the Supreme Court taking the case are extremely slim.

“Right now I don’t have a good answer on where that leaves us,” he said. “We know there aren’t a lot of options available (for paying the judgment), and there aren’t options for immediately getting that kind of money.”

The judgment now exceeds $30 million with attorneys fees and interest. That’s more than three times Gage County’s $8.9 million budget for this year.

“That’s a huge financial impact for a county of our size,” Dorn said.

Jeff Patterson, a Lincoln attorney who represents four of the six plaintiffs, said his clients understand that Gage County most likely will not be able to pay the judgment right away.

“Obviously they don’t have $30 million sitting around in a coffee can,” he said.

But Patterson said he was pleased to see county officials turning their attention to paying the debt. He said the plaintiffs were willing to be reasonable about the payments, noting that raising the county property tax levy to the constitutional maximum would produce only about $3 million annually.

“We’re just happy that things are moving forward,” he said.

Gage County Board members last week took some first steps toward paying the judgment.

Those included hiring a group to review the county’s financial situation and hiring bond attorneys to advise the county about options for raising funds through bonds. Previous steps included consulting with bankruptcy attorneys and insurance lawyers.

Dorn said the board will talk more Wednesday morning about options, including whether to go forward with an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Dorn is running for the District 30 legislative seat.

Don Schuller, his opponent in the legislative race, has said state officials should work with Gage County on paying the judgment. He called for a special legislative session to approve state assistance.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ spokesman, Taylor Gage, offered no comment Tuesday about possible state aid. He said the governor has been monitoring the litigation and will be talking with Gage County officials about their plans.

Gage County officials decided last week to take their case to the nation’s highest court and asked the 8th Circuit to put the judgment on hold until the Supreme Court decided whether to take up the case.

The federal appeals court has consistently held that Gage County sheriff’s deputies carried out a reckless investigation that framed innocent people. The 8th Circuit has reviewed the case four times so far, always siding with the six wrongly convicted plaintiffs.

On Tuesday, the appeals court denied the request to put the judgment on hold and returned the case to the federal district court in Lincoln to carry out the judgment.

In 2016, a federal jury in Lincoln ordered that a combined $28 million be paid to Kathy Gonzales, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor and the estate of Joseph White.

The six had been convicted and sent to prison for the 1985 rape and slaying of Helen Wilson, 68, of Beatrice.

DNA testing of crime scene evidence, ordered as a result of White’s appeals in 2008, matched none of the six, but it did match a criminal drifter who died in 1992 in Oklahoma. White, Winslow and Taylor, all of whom were still in prison, were ordered released. White subsequently died in a workplace accident.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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