LINCOLN — The rape and killing of Helen Wilson in 1985 shocked a small Nebraska city, devastated her family and lit a fire under a former cop.
Burt Searcey, who had left the Beatrice Police Department a couple of years earlier to raise hogs, believed his former colleagues wouldn’t solve the case.
So he launched his own private investigation. Four years later, after having regained a badge, with the Gage County Sheriff’s Office, Searcey arrested six people for the crime.
All were convicted and imprisoned, including Joseph E. White, who was sent away for life.
Now it’s the deputy who wears the title “defendant,” in a civil rights lawsuit.
In 2008 Searcey’s case became the first murder conviction in Nebraska to be overturned by DNA testing.
On Tuesday, nine women and three men will return to the Federal Courthouse in Lincoln in an effort to decide if Gage County should pay potentially millions of dollars for sending six people to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
It’s a colossal task.
Jurors heard 18 days of testimony from 26 witnesses. They retreated to the deliberation room with 230 exhibits, which included police reports, transcripts of suspect interrogations, crime-scene photos and forensic tests nearly three decades old.
Eight lawyers litigated the case, although one missed much of the trial because of illness.
The judge needed 30 minutes to read instructions to jurors, and he gave them a 14-page verdict form. The closing arguments lasted three hours.
Jurors must decide whether Searcey and his colleagues manufactured evidence or conspired to achieve wrongful convictions. They must decide if authorities ran an investigation so reckless that it trampled the civil rights of six innocent people.
And their decision must be unanimous.
If they manage in coming days to reach a verdict, it will represent an achievement.
Two years ago, just as much time, effort and expense went into the Beatrice Six trial.
Only to end with a hung jury.
Joseph White was the only one of the six to refuse a plea bargain and take his case to a jury. He served more than 19 years of a life term for first-degree murder. White always maintained his innocence. His dogged pursuit of DNA testing freed him in 2008 and led to pardons for his five co-defendants. He died in 2011 in a workplace accident.
Ada JoAnn Taylor confessed, pleaded guilty and testified against White in exchange for a reduced charge. She served nearly 18 years of a 10- to 40-year term.
Debra Shelden confessed, pleaded guilty and testified against White for a reduced charge. She served nearly five years of a 10-year term.
James Dean confessed, pleaded guilty and testified against White for a reduced charge. He served five years of a 10-year term.
Kathy Gonzalez maintained she had nothing to do with the crime, although she accepted a plea bargain to avoid a longer prison term. She served five years of a 10-year term.
Thomas Winslow did not testify at White’s trial. He took a plea deal to get a reduced punishment. He served about 19 years of a 50-year term.
Sheriff Jerry DeWitt: He not only ran the small department, records show he was involved at key points in the Wilson investigation. DeWitt died in 2012 and is represented in the lawsuit by his estate.
Burt Searcey: He was the lead investigator. He still stands behind his investigation and says he believes the man whose DNA was identified in 2008 was just the seventh perpetrator.
Dr. Wayne Price: The clinical psychologist was also a sworn reserve deputy who served as the sheriff’s forensic psychologist. He met with five of the six, suggesting to at least two of them they may have repressed their memories of the crime.
Gage County: In order to win their claim against the county, the plaintiffs need to prove that the wrongful convictions were the result of formal or informal policies established by the sheriff.
Former Gage County Attorney Richard Smith: Although he played a crucial role in the Wilson investigation and prosecution, Smith had earlier been dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit. The courts ruled that prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity from civil liability claims. Still, attorneys for the plaintiffs grilled him on the witness stand to bolster their efforts to suggest a conspiracy.
The police investigation
Helen Wilson was found dead Feb. 6, 1985, on the living room floor of her apartment north of downtown Beatrice. She had been brutally raped, and an afghan had been bound tightly around her nose and mouth. An autopsy determined she had been suffering from pneumonia and died of suffocation.
Based on forensic tests of crime scene evidence, Beatrice police focused their search for a suspect with Type B blood who did not secrete blood group substances into his semen. In other words, they needed to find a “Type B non-secretor,” which statistically narrowed the field to a small percentage of the population. They eliminated more than 300 suspects, including three of the people who would be arrested in 1989 by the Sheriff’s Office.
The police also obtained an FBI profile based on crime scene evidence, which indicated the sexual predator almost certainly acted alone.
The sheriff’s investigation
Working as a private investigator in 1985, Searcey talked to a 17-year-old streetwise girl who said one of her acquaintances, JoAnn Taylor, had confessed to the killing. Taylor also reportedly told the informant that “Lobo” — the nickname of Joseph White — was involved in the crime.
After Searcey joined the Sheriff’s Office he used the same informant to obtain arrest warrants for Taylor and White in March 1989. White denied involvement and demanded an attorney. Taylor talked, although her initial statements bore little resemblance to the known facts of the slaying.
Still needing to find the Type B blood, Searcey pushed Taylor to name a third perpetrator. That led to the arrest of Tom Winslow, who was charged after he made a series of conflicting statements to the deputy. But Winslow had the wrong blood type.
Next, the deputy arrested Deb Shelden, based on a tip from her own husband, Cliff, an informant considered so unreliable, the prosecutor refused to put him on the witness stand. After initially denying involvement, Deb Shelden confessed and eventually gave Searcey another name: James Dean.
Shelden, who has limited intellectual function, also quickly agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for her cooperation.
Dean, on the other hand, denied involvement for 22 days. But after he was told he had failed a lie detector test, and facing the prospect of the electric chair, he agreed to plead guilty. But even then he said he couldn’t remember the crime and told investigators he wouldn’t know Joe White if he saw him.
Neither Dean nor Shelden had Type B blood. Actively working for authorities, they both identified a sixth perpetrator, Kathy Gonzalez.
The authorities finally had someone with Type B blood. But in all other respects, Gonzalez was worthless to them because she insisted she had nothing to do with the killing.
Taylor, Dean and Shelden cut deals with the prosecutor. In exchange for their cooperation, they were allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges.
At trial, the three testified that White and Winslow raped the victim while Taylor suffocated her with a pillow.
Gonzalez accepted a deal and pleaded no contest to a reduced charge. She never implicated any of her co-defendants.
In the end, Winslow recanted his earlier statements and insisted he was not involved. But when he saw White’s fate, he decided to take the state’s offer of a reduced charge in exchange for his no-contest plea.
On the day he was sentenced, White vowed to one day prove his innocence. He did in 2008 after the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered DNA testing of the blood and semen found in the apartment.
The Beatrice police had saved the evidence. As it turned out, the police never believed the Sheriff’s Office had the right people.
A killer identified
Stunned that the DNA results matched none of the six, a multi-agency task force took over the case in 2008.
They first looked for a DNA match by going back through the list of suspects Beatrice police had eliminated in 1985. They quickly focused on Bruce Allen Smith.
Smith was a former Beatrice resident who had moved to Oklahoma City in the 1980s. But he had been back in town for a few days, and a friend said he’d dropped Smith off near Wilson’s apartment building late on the night of the attack.
At the request of Beatrice police and a Nebraska State Patrol investigator, Oklahoma City police had obtained biological samples from Smith in 1985 and had them tested. He had Type B blood, but the Oklahoma crime lab apparently said he was a secretor. Beatrice investigators were looking for a non-secretor, so they scratched Smith off the list without double-checking the blood sample in Nebraska.
In 2008 the task force found Smith’s samples in the Beatrice police evidence room and were able to get his DNA profile from the root of a pubic hair. They determined that the DNA from Smith — who had died in 1992 in Oklahoma City — matched the DNA found at the scene.
The task force tried to develop links between Smith and the six but were unsuccessful. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office gave the sheriff’s investigation a deep review and concluded that the wrong people had been convicted.
In response to the case, the Legislature passed a law to compensate those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The six were paid a combined $2.13 million in state compensation.
The plaintiffs’ case
Lawyers for the six put on a case that accounted for 14 of the 18 days of testimony and relied heavily on a trove of records from the investigation.
They focused intensely on the blood tests from 1985 and 1989. They argued the lab results showed that authorities had never arrested a suspect with the right Type B blood and they knew it.
Instead, they showed how Searcey had built his case not on forensics but on the confessions from Taylor, Dean and Shelden — three people with histories of mental illness or limited intellectual capacities. Searcey and other investigators appeared to ignore the parts of statements that conflicted with each other or the forensic crime scene evidence.
Searcey also testified that he knew some of the information he put in sworn arrest affidavits was factually incorrect. For example, the timing of the story told by his original informant was wrong, but Searcey included it in an affidavit anyway.
The plaintiffs also established how the investigators — Price in particular — had known that Taylor had a mental condition marked by delusions and hallucinations. When the stories she initially gave investigators did not match the crime scene evidence, they fed her some of the correct details through their questioning.
The plaintiffs revealed that authorities had shown a video of the crime scene made by police to Dean and Shelden at a time when both said they were struggling to remember how the crime unfolded.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs also devoted a significant portion of their case to Price, the sheriff’s psychologist. After meeting with Price, Dean and Shelden said they gradually recalled what had happened, through their dreams. Dean would eventually say everything he remembered about the case came either from dreams or from seeing the crime scene video.
The plaintiffs pointed to gaps in the official documentation of the investigation. While some interrogations of suspects were videotaped or recorded, others were not.
During one interrogation of Taylor, she insisted she could not remember the name of another participant in the crime. After a break in the tape, she identified Winslow.
On the witness stand during last month’s trial, the surviving members of the Beatrice Six said the defendants frequently told them they faced a potential death sentence unless they cooperated. Fear of execution factored heavily into the decisions of the five who pleaded guilty or no contest, they said.
During closing arguments, the attorneys urged the jury to award no less than $37.5 million to their clients.
The defendants’ case
Lawyers for the investigators wanted the jury to consider what it was like for deputies working to solve a horrendous killing in 1989 without the benefit of DNA testing.
When it came to the blood tests, they pointed to the 1989 deposition of a forensic scientist who said if there were multiple perpetrators, the lab results could not eliminate White as a contributor of one of the semen samples. Nor could Gonzalez be excluded as the contributor of at least some of the Type B blood.
They also made it clear that all of the six were read Miranda warnings and were represented by court-appointed lawyers. And those who pleaded to the crimes never told their lawyers, or the district judge who accepted their pleas, that they had been coerced or threatened.
Other members of the Sheriff’s Office testified they never heard DeWitt, Searcey or Price threaten the six to gain their cooperation. Several also downplayed any role DeWitt or Price had in the investigation.
Price testified that he always made it clear when he spoke to any of the six that he was working as a sheriff’s deputy, not a therapist.
Searcey testified that he wasn’t troubled by incorrect timing, conflicting details and factual errors in the various confessions he obtained. Such inconsistencies are typical, he said. It would have been more of a red flag had their stories matched perfectly, he added.
He also said it’s not uncommon for suspects to later discredit their initial statements.
And Searcey told jurors there’s more to solving a killing than collecting blood, semen and hair samples at the crime scene.
As for factual errors in his arrest warrant affidavits, Searcey shrugged them off. He said his job was to accurately reflect what he had been told by the informant and let the judge decide if it was sufficient to authorize an arrest.
During closing arguments, one of the lawyers for Gage County said the plaintiffs had failed to clear what is a very high bar of proving that the investigation was reckless. But if the jurors do find in favor of the plaintiffs, she suggested a more modest sum for damages: $1.4 million.
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