BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) — Gage County officials have announced plans to raise taxes to help pay off a $28 million jury award for the wrongful convictions of six people for a 1985 slaying.
The move was announced Wednesday during a County Board meeting, the Beatrice Daily Sun reported. The plan is to raise the tax levy to the maximum allowable 50 cents next year should the county be required to pay the award.
In July, a federal appeals court affirmed the jury award. County officials still hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn it.
If the levy is raised to the maximum rate, it would generate an additional $3.8 million annually. The county currently collects about $8 million a year in taxes. The damages amount to almost $1,300 for each of the county’s roughly 21,900 residents.
The Beatrice Six — Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez and Debra Shelden — were wrongfully convicted in the 1985 rape and slaying of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in Beatrice.
In 1989, investigators relied heavily on confessions from three suspects with histories of mental illness, two of whom told authorities that their memories came from dreams and nightmares. And investigators proceeded with the prosecutions even though none of the six perfectly matched the perpetrator’s blood or could be conclusively tied to his semen.
White won a long legal fight for DNA testing on preserved crime scene evidence in 2008. The results overturned White’s conviction, and a subsequent multiagency task force investigation prompted official pardons for the five others.
The tests also identified the killer as Bruce Allen Smith, a onetime Beatrice resident who died in 1992 in Oklahoma. Smith emerged as a suspect in 1985, but a mistake on a blood test led investigators to rule him out.
The six filed an extremely complex lawsuit in 2009. The case went to trial in 2014, only to result in a hung jury. In 2016, a second jury deliberated for four days, weighing 18 days of testimony and 230 exhibits. Jurors had to decide 60 individual claims before returning their verdict.
This report includes material from World-Herald archives.