LINCOLN — James Dean was behind the wheel of a semitrailer truck Monday when he learned that a federal appeals court upheld a $28 million jury verdict against Gage County for convicting him and five others for a homicide they didn’t commit.
The call from his lawyer about the decision from a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brought a sense of relief. But the 54-year-old truck driver also said he wondered whether he would see his share of the damages any time soon.
“No amount of money in the world is ever going to replace what I lost, but it would help,” said Dean, who spent about five years in prison after he was coerced into falsely confessing to the 1985 rape and suffocation of a Beatrice grandmother.
The decision on how soon Dean and the other members of the so-called Beatrice Six get paid now rests with Gage County’s elected officials. In response to the court decision, the County Board scheduled a closed-door emergency meeting for Wednesday to discuss the next steps.
The county is down to a couple of legal options. Lawyers for the county already plan to ask for a review of the case by all 11 judges on the 8th Circuit Court.
“That’s a long shot,” said Steven Drizin, a professor at the Northwestern Pitzker School of Law and a national expert on wrongful convictions. “Then to try to get the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, that’s an even higher long shot.”
In Monday’s decision, the three judges unanimously rejected all of the county’s arguments to erase the monetary damages and order a new civil trial. Judge Bobby Shepherd of El Dorado, Arkansas, noted in his opinion that the court has now rendered four rulings in the case, all in favor of the Beatrice Six.
“We are asked here, in large part, to sweep the pieces off the board — to overturn our prior rulings — in order to vacate the jury’s verdict,” he wrote. “We decline to do so.”
The six falsely accused people collectively spent more than 70 years locked away for the slaying of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in Beatrice. DNA testing of crime scene evidence in 2008 matched none of the six but pointed to a criminal drifter who died long before he could be brought to justice.
Of the roughly 350 cases of DNA exoneration in the United States, none has involved more defendants wrongfully convicted of a single murder. The case was also the first in Nebraska in which DNA was used to overturn murder convictions.
The case also is noted for producing false confessions from three of the defendants after they met with a psychologist who worked as a part-time sheriff’s deputy and was helping investigate the homicide.
The lawsuit was filed by Joseph E. White, Tom Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Ada JoAnn Taylor. The convictions unraveled because of DNA testing sought by White, the only defendant to refuse to plead to charges in exchange for a lighter sentence.
White died while working at an Alabama coal refinery in 2011, not three years after he won his release from a life sentence. He is represented in the lawsuit by his mother, Lois White.
After DNA testing cleared the six, authorities compared the test results with evidence police had collected years earlier from other suspects. They discovered a match with Bruce Allen Smith, who grew up in Beatrice and was drifting through the city the night of the homicide. Smith died in 1992 in Oklahoma City.
“This whole situation is just a complete tragedy,” said Jeff Patterson, whose firm, Bartle & Geier, represented four of the six in the civil rights lawsuit. “It’s a tragedy for the residents of Gage County, it’s a tragedy for the Wilson family and it’s a tragedy for my clients.”
The court affirmed the jury’s decision that Deputy Burdette “Burt” Searcey, the lead investigator, and Wayne Price, the sheriff’s psychologist, conducted a reckless investigation that violated the civil rights of the six. The court also upheld the parts of the verdict that found that deputies manufactured evidence against some of the wrongfully accused.
Both Searcey and Price are personally liable for the verdict, along with the county that once employed them.
One of the county’s key arguments was that the jury did not find the late sheriff, Jerry DeWitt, officially or personally liable for wrongdoing. Lawyers for the county argued the sheriff could not have created an official policy that caused a constitutional violation and therefore, the county should be off the hook for the $28 million verdict.
But the court said trial testimony showed that the investigation would have fizzled if not for the sheriff’s approval of multiple arrests when authorities couldn’t find a match for the blood recovered at the scene. The sheriff’s willingness to ignore evidence that contradicted with the crime scene and exonerated the accused created a clear, albeit unwritten, policy for his investigators to follow, the court ruled.
“In this way, he gave oxygen to the reckless investigation largely led by Searcey,” the judge wrote.
The judge quoted from a previous decision that said a fundamental concept of the American justice system is that those responsible for upholding the law are prohibited from framing the innocent.
“The jury was warranted in concluding that this is exactly what happened through the reckless investigation here,” Judge Shepherd wrote.
The ruling will evoke dread among some taxpayers in Gage County, where elected officials have said they cannot cover a sum that likely exceeds $30 million with attorneys fees and interest added in.
The Gage County Board’s 10 a.m. Wednesday meeting was scheduled to discuss their next steps, said Myron Dorn, the board chairman.
“It’s definitely not a good decision for the county,” he said. “We’re going to be looking at every option.”
The options include continuing a legal fight to recover some of the damages from the county’s insurers, asking the Nebraska Legislature for assistance or declaring bankruptcy, which would be a first for a county government in the state.
Attorney Herb Friedman, who represented Dean in the federal lawsuit, said he thinks it’s time for county officials to end a legal fight that has now stretched nine years.
“There should be some light at the end of the tunnel for these folks,” he said.