LINCOLN — A former prosecutor who led a task force that concluded six people were wrongfully convicted of a 1985 murder said Friday the case made him a reluctant opponent of the death penalty.
Randall Ritnour was Gage County attorney in 2008 when a multi-agency task force reopened the homicide of Helen Wilson in Beatrice. After DNA testing of crime scene evidence cleared the six people who had been convicted, task force members used the results to identify the lone male perpetrator of the rape and slaying.
The Beatrice Six case gained national notoriety for having the largest number of defendants wrongfully convicted in a single prosecution. On Wednesday, a federal court jury awarded $28 million in monetary damages to the six, who spent more than 70 years in prison combined.
“It happened right here in our backyard. We can’t say it’s not possible to make a mistake because we did, we made a huge one,” Ritnour said during a Lincoln press conference organized by Retain a Just Nebraska, a group working to persuade voters to support the 2015 repeal of the death penalty.
Surviving members of the Beatrice Six testified during the recent trial how authorities frequently reminded them they faced the death penalty if they didn’t cooperate with investigators. They said fear of the electric chair factored into their decisions to plead guilty or no contest to lesser charges.
Lawyers for the sheriff’s investigators, however, argued there was no documentation or other evidence of death penalty threats in the case.
Bob Evnen, a board member for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said there are documented cases where killers plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for taking capital punishment off the table. In such cases, the death penalty helps save money and lessen the burden on the courts while sparing loved ones of the victim an emotionally painful trial, he argued.
But Ritnour said when the task force reopened the Beatrice Six case, they intended to prove that the 1989 convictions were valid. Instead, they found the suspect statements used to obtain the convictions couldn’t be corroborated by the crime scene evidence.
The Beatrice Six case would have been even worse had any of the defendants been executed. The case changed him from an ardent supporter of capital punishment into an opponent, Ritnour said.
“Our ability to execute all the ... murderers we can is not worth the death of one innocent individual at the hands of the state,” he said.
State Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha was one of 30 senators who cast votes to override the governor’s veto of the death penalty repeal in 2015. Harr, a former deputy prosecutor for Douglas County, urged voters to keep the repeal when they go to the polls in November.
Once a prisoner is executed, any mistakes in his case can’t be undone, Harr said.
“The death penalty is just that, it’s forever,” he said. “There’s no coming back.”
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