LINCOLN — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dashed Gage County’s last hope of getting a $28.1 million judgment overturned.
The court refused to take up the county’s appeal of a lawsuit won by six people who collectively spent more than 70 years in prison for a slaying they did not commit.
The judgment stems from a 2016 federal court case in which a jury in Lincoln ordered payment to Kathy Gonzales, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor and the estate of Joseph White.
The Beatrice Six were convicted and sent to prison for the 1985 rape and slaying of Helen Wilson, 68, of Beatrice.
Jeff Patterson, a Lincoln attorney who represented four of the six plaintiffs, called the news a very big development in a long, tragic saga.
“We think that this should put an end to litigation that began in 2008,” he said. “It’s been a very, very long process. My clients are very, very relieved.”
State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, a former Gage County Board chairman, said county officials knew that an appeal to the Supreme Court would be a long shot, so the court’s decision was not unexpected.
“The only option left is paying on it,” he said.
In September, Gage County officials raised the county’s property tax levy to the maximum allowed under the State Constitution to start paying the judgment. The 11.76-cent increase will raise about $3.8 million this year.
The first payments to the plaintiffs could come in May, after property owners pay the first half of their property taxes, Patterson said.
In the meantime, Dorn has introduced three legislative bills aimed at helping the county make its payments. He said he is working with colleagues in hopes of getting something out of committee.
His bills include one allowing counties facing a federal court judgment to impose a half-cent sales tax on purchases in the county. The tax could be approved by a two-thirds vote of the County Board instead of a vote of the people.
Another would allow counties and other local governments facing court judgments too large to pay off at one time to get a low-interest loan from the state. A third would allow local governments facing court judgments for wrongful conviction or incarceration to file a claim with the state for money to help pay off the judgment.
The cases against the Beatrice Six unraveled in 2008, when DNA testing of crime scene evidence, ordered as a result of White’s appeals, found no matches with any of them.
The DNA did match Bruce Allen Smith, a onetime Beatrice resident who had passed through town the night of the slaying. Smith died of AIDS 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.