Beatrice 6 Damage Claim Case Returns to Federal Court

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May 8, 2015 - 6:45am

Any hope for additional damages for those wrongly convicted of a 1985 murder in Gage County, Nebraska lies with three federal appeals court judges convening in Omaha next week.


The case of the Beatrice Six is thought to be the largest 'false confession' case in American history.  Six people were sent to prison after going to trial, pleading guilty or no contest to charges related to the murder and rape of a 68-year-old woman. 

A tragedy for those involved, it became notorious in the news media, a rallying point for advocates of fair trails, and a major headache for leading law enforcement officials in Nebraska.

Video from one of Thomas Winslow's interrogation sessions in 1989. (Image from Nebraska Attorney General)

When evidence arose that the convictions were based on coerced confessions, their lawyers successfully obtained previously unavailable DNA testing of the original evidence. The tests cleared the participants of any involvement. They were the first people in Nebraska ever exonerated through the use of DNA evidence.

A three judge panel from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will consider if Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Debra Shelden and JoAnn Taylor deserve compensation for the years they spent in prison while the real killer was free.   Joseph White, who served over 19 years in prison, has since died.  Surviving members of his family are included among those seeking damages.

Attorneys for the group claim the actions of investigators with the Gage County Sheriff's Office wrongly put them in jail and violated their civil rights “with fabricated and coerced evidence to get convictions.” Those being asked to pay for the mistake include Deputy Burt Searcey, who lead the investigation and Wayne Price, a psychologist and reserve sheriff’s deputy. Payment is also being asked of Gage County.  The elected sheriff at the time, Jerry DeWitt, passed away in 2012.

The case went to trial last year before Federal District Judge Richard Kopf. During the original trial Kopf dismissed any claims against Gage County. The judge ruled lawyers for the six plaintiffs failed to prove the county policies and procedures contributed to the wrongful convictions.

The case against individual officers remained unresolved when the judge declared a mistrial. At the time a juror told the Omaha World Herald there was general agreement the investigation was reckless, but they could not find common ground on whether the law enforcement agency manufactured evidence to bolster their investigation.

Judge Kopf requested the case go directly to the next higher level of the federal appellate system to the benefit of everyone involved.

"If the plaintiffs were successful on appeal, a third trial would then be necessary," Kopf stated in his order. “This would not be an efficient use of judicial resources, and it would subject all parties to unnecessary expense and other burdens of trial."

At the same time the Court of Appeals is being asked to reverse the ruling excluding Gage County as a separate party from the demand for damages.

The state of Nebraska has, or apparently soon will, provide some compensation for the surviving members of the group and the estate of Joseph White.

The Legislature recently gave second round approval to a bill authorizing damage payments in a number of claims filed against the state. Three of the Beatrice group will split $1.15 million made possible through the Nebraska Wrongful Conviction Act.  The act was passed in large part because of this case.

Those settlements were delayed even after the state of Nebraska publicly cleared all six of any wrong doing.  Then attorney general Jon Bruning fought issuing any payments to the three, arguing to the Nebraska Supreme Court the three made false statements to police leading to the arrests of the group. The court cleared the way for the payments by stating they could not be held responsible for confessions arising from improper police interrogation methods.

Five years ago the other three in the case received their settlements from the state, ranging from $500,000 to $180,000.  The state developed a formula to determine on the specific amount of damages depending on the specific factors in cases of wrongful convictions.

Thomas Winslow speaks to the Innocence Network Conference in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Recently Thomas Winslow became the latest of the group to acknowledge his addition to the National Registry of Exonerations. The list accumulated nearly 1,600 names since 1989. It recognizes those who were falsely convicted and later released when their cases continued to be challenged in the legal system. For the first time he attended a national conference of the Innocence Network in Orlando, Florida.

Winslow, who among all the Beatrice group avoids the limelight, spoke to a crowded dinner honoring the exonerees, promising his lost friend Joseph White and the survivors “we’re still fighting and we’re going to keep going.”

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