LINCOLN — Gage County officials will make a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of avoiding a $28 million judgment.
County Board members made the decision Wednesday, one day after the latest 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 homicide.
The so-called Beatrice Six collectively spent more than 70 years in prison before DNA testing identified another person as the killer.
Board Chairman Myron Dorn said the county will ask the 8th Circuit to put the judgment on hold until the Supreme Court decides whether to take up the case. It most likely would take several months to put together a request, called a petition for a writ of certiorari, and get a decision from the Supreme Court on whether it will hear the appeal.
But board members also took some first steps toward possible payment of the judgment.
Dorn said the board approved hiring a group to review the county’s financial situation and offer advice about how the judgment might affect the picture. In addition, the board approved hiring bond attorneys, who could guide the county in raising funds through bonds.
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 were 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.
Last month, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit unanimously upheld the jury verdict. County officials voted two days later to ask for a rehearing by the full appellate court. That request was denied Tuesday.
The federal appeals court has consistently held that Gage County’s 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.
The total judgment now exceeds $30 million with attorneys fees and interest. As of last month, Dorn said, Gage County has spent nearly $1.8 million on its legal defense. The cost has been spread over eight or nine years.
Don Schuller, a Gage County farmer and legislative candidate, said state and local leaders should meet to consider all options for paying the judgment without increasing property taxes. He said those options should include calling a special session of the Legislature to approve state assistance.
Dorn, the other candidate for the District 30 seat, declined to comment on Schuller’s suggestions.