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$28.1 Million Jury Verdict for Wrongful Convictions Upheld by 8th Circuit

by Kevin Bliss

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a jury’s verdict that awarded six wrongfully convicted individuals approximately $28.1 million in connection with their 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims and parallel conspiracy claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 against Gage County, Nebraska; Deputy Wayne Price; Deputy Burdette Searcey, and Sheriff Jerry DeWitt (collectively, “Appellants”).

The jury concluded that they conducted a reckless investigation, manufactured false evidence, and coerced confessions to convict Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, Deborah Shelden, Kathleen Gonzalez, and James Dean (collectively, “Appellees”) of the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson.

The Appellees were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008. That same year, they filed suit against Gage County, Price, Searcy, and DeWitt. They argued that, under DeWitt’s authority, Searcy purposely pursued their conviction even when physical evidence and individual statements indicated that none of the Appellees were involved in any way with the crime. They also claimed that Price coerced false testimony from them under the guise of therapy.

Blood and semen samples were found at the crime scene, which did not match any of the Appellees. Statements were taken from each of them that did not corroborate each other and did not match the evidence. In fact, when proper evidence could not be elicited from their testimony, Price used dream therapy, as he did with Dean, to help him “reconcile his unconscious awareness of being present with the conscious belief that he was not there.” The Court accused Price of actively cajoling and encouraging certain Appellees, some of whom like Taylor and Sheldon were mentally infirm.

The trial court ruled that the investigation showed that DeWitt authorized and coordinated the actions of his investigators, making him liable personally and as a conspirator for Gage County in his official capacity. The jury had sufficient evidence to find that Price and Searcey ignored exonerating evidence, coerced testimony, manufactured evidence, and performed a reckless investigation.

On appeal to the Eight Circuit, Appellants challenged several of the trial court’s rulings, as well as the jury’s verdict. The Eight Circuit rejected the challenges and affirmed.

In light of just how egregious the Appellants’ conduct was in this case, the Court noted: “there are certain types of law enforcement conduct that ‘do more than offend some fastidious squeamishness or private sentimentalism about combatting crime’ and which the Constitution forbids. Over the course of now four opinions, and our multiple meticulous reviews of the evidence presented, we have recognized this case is an example of such conduct—and a jury has agreed.” See: Dean v. Searcey, 893 F.3d 504 (8th Cir. 2018).  

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