LINCOLN — Gage County officials are down to one extreme long shot for overturning a $28 million judgment, after losing another ruling in the Beatrice Six case.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order Tuesday denying the county’s request to have its appeal reheard by the full court.
The decision leaves an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court as the county’s only option to avoid paying damages to the six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 homicide. The six collectively spent more than 70 years in prison before DNA testing identified another person as the killer.
County Board Chairman Myron Dorn said the board will meet with attorneys Wednesday morning to consider the choices, which include going to the Supreme Court or ending the county’s legal fight and figuring out how to deal with the judgment.
Dorn would not predict what the board might do. But he acknowledged that one option might be declaring bankruptcy.
He said the board will meet with the attorneys involved with defending the federal case, along with an insurance lawyer and at least one bankruptcy lawyer.
Jennifer Tomka, one of the attorneys representing the county, called Tuesday’s decision disappointing, adding “we’ll make some decisions tomorrow when we meet with the board.”
Jeff Patterson, an attorney representing four of the six plaintiffs, said the odds are extremely slim that the nation’s high court will take a case.
In this case, he said, the county also would have to persuade the 8th Circuit to put its ruling on hold while the county seeks to appeal further. Without such an order, the appellate court order would be sent down to the district court next Tuesday, and the six could begin trying to collect the judgment.
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.
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.
Patterson said the legal battle mounted by the county has increased its costs. The judgment against the county now exceeds $30 million with attorneys fees and interest.
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