BEATRICE, Neb. — The Beatrice Six managed to eclipse even Husker football last week as the most pressing topic at a downtown barbershop called The Strop.
Gloom permeated the discussion as Davin Stege swiftly worked a comb and scissors on a midafternoon customer. The military veteran with a thick beard and direct manner said everyone worries about paying $28 million owed to six people wrongly imprisoned for the death of Helen Wilson 33 years ago.
“I was barely a year old when this whole thing went down,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to do with it and neither did most people.”
Then the barber’s customer offered an opinion held by many in Gage County when he said he’s skeptical about the innocence of the six. And if they had anything at all to do with the shockingly brutal rape and murder of a 68-year-old grandmother in 1985, they should not collect a dime, he added.
The view persists despite DNA testing of preserved crime-scene evidence that matched only the victim and a criminal drifter who eluded justice and died in Oklahoma City in 1992.
It persists despite a state task force reinvestigation of the crime and a review by the Board of Pardons that concluded the six were innocent.
And the doubts continue despite nearly a decade of exhaustive legal examinations by no fewer than 17 state and federal judges and 12 federal court jurors. All determined that Gage County authorities punished the wrong people.
On Monday, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury verdict and the $28 million in damages. The decision was sweeping in its rejection of Gage County’s legal protests, said Steven Drizin, a professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and a national expert on wrongful convictions.
“The court couldn’t have been clearer that Gage County and its sheriff — and, in particular, two deputies who worked under the sheriff — ran wild and roughshod over the constitutional rights of these defendants to convict them of crimes they did not commit,” Drizin said.
The decision represents a milestone in the long effort by the Beatrice Six to hold authorities accountable for the more than 70 years combined the six served in prison. The lawsuits were brought by Joseph E. White, Kathleen Gonzalez, Tom Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Ada JoAnn Taylor.
Still, some Gage County residents say DNA proved only the identity of the rapist — it didn’t prove the six were not somehow tied to the crime. Others think the six are lying because it got them out of prison and could now make them wealthy.
Doubts about innocence have, in part, motivated the county’s elected officials to fight the federal lawsuit.
Following a closed-door emergency meeting with their attorneys Wednesday, the Gage County Board voted 7-0 to ask the full 8th Circuit Court to review the latest decision by a three-judge panel of the court. The high financial stakes for the county are just one reason the board decided not to halt the litigation.
“We’re still in the right on this case,” said Erich Tiemann of Beatrice, who has served four years on the board.
He declined to discuss his reasons, saying he doesn’t want to jeopardize the county’s last remaining chances to get the case overturned. But he also said he’s convinced the investigators did not violate the civil rights of the six.
In 1989, the investigators were heralded for solving a cold case that had haunted the community of 12,400 people for four years.
Only Joseph White maintained his innocence and took the charges to trial. But jurors were convinced of his guilt after Taylor, Dean and Shelden all took the stand. The story they told, that White and Winslow raped the victim while Taylor suffocated her with a pillow, sent White to prison on a life sentence.
The state’s witnesses pleaded guilty to lesser charges and got lighter sentences. Gonzalez and Winslow said they pleaded no contest to reduced charges to avoid the risk of White’s fate or even the electric chair.
The confessions and detailed testimony of Taylor, Dean and Shelden represent a primary reason some can’t accept that the county should have to pay millions of dollars in damages. All of the defendants were represented by defense lawyers, and all took an oath before they testified.
As unlikely as it may seem, false confessions have been well documented in other cases as well. About one-quarter of the nearly 360 people exonerated by DNA testing in the United States falsely confessed to the crime, according to the Innocence Project.
The reasons for false confession are many and complex, but they include contamination of suspects with crime scene information during police interrogations, threat of harsh punishment, and mental impairment of the suspect. All were factors in the Beatrice Six case.
The jury found that investigators manufactured evidence against the six by revealing important crime scene details — even showing photos and video — to shore up witness accounts that initially conflicted with the evidence.
In addition, a psychologist and part-time deputy for the department met with the accused, offering relaxation techniques and other strategies they could use to recover repressed memories of the crime. The psychologist played a key role in helping Dean and Shelden recall supposed details from their dreams.
Authorities also told the defendants they faced the possibility of a death sentence unless they cooperated.
After the DNA results came back in 2008, it became clear that the rape and killing could not have occurred as the state’s witnesses testified at White’s trial. But the reason Gage County now finds itself on the hook for $28 million is because a jury concluded the investigators knew in 1989 that their case couldn’t be supported by the evidence.
The appellate judges cited multiple examples of the investigators ignoring evidence that excluded the six as perpetrators. Judge Bobby Shepherd, who wrote last week’s opinion, concluded the six had been framed by law enforcement authorities in violation of one of the most fundamental tenets of the American system of justice.
Not everyone interviewed last week in Gage County expressed belief that the six were involved.
Inez Hall, who owns an office supply store downtown, said now that the courts have decided the case, it’s time to pay. She suggested the county find a way to borrow the money and pay it back over time.
Still, some expressed resentment about the amount of damages the six now stand to collect. Charles Smith, a retired plumber in Wymore, pointed out they have all received state compensation in amounts up to the $500,000 cap allowed by Nebraska law.
In retrospect, Smith said he wished Gage County officials would have settled for the $15 million the six were willing to accept before taking the lawsuit to trial. But if the remaining appeals fail and the county has to pay the full amount, he and others argued the state should help.
“Should we have to pay that much for a mistake, if it was a mistake? No,” he said.
It was more than a mistake, said James Dean, one of the six who now lives in Kansas and drives a truck for a living.
Dean told authorities over and over, for three weeks after his arrest, that he had nothing to do with the killing. He was being truthful, he said, but they had already decided he was guilty. Finally, when authorities said he failed a lie detector test and showed him photos of the victim’s lifeless body, he broke.
Years later, after White got his conviction overturned and walked out of prison, Dean said he apologized. White, who died in a workplace accident in 2011, accepted, Dean said.
One of the first steps in recovery is admitting you are wrong, Dean said, adding it’s time Gage County followed that advice.
“The justice system failed us at one time,” he said. “Now it’s prevailing.”