by Ed Lyon
Popular country music singer Charlie Daniels’ first hit was a song called The Ballad of the Uneasy Rider. The singer-narrator told a story about a hippy who barely escapes a redneck bar and was so spooked he “drove to L.A. by way of Omaha.” That route might have seen that hapless hippy traveling through the small town of Beatrice in Gage County, Nebraska. This location is known today for an entirely different reason. The county owes a lot of money to five former criminal convictees and the estate of a deceased one, otherwise known as the “Beatrice Six.” The money is the result of a wrongful conviction award by a jury for $28,100,000 — and Gage County cannot pay.
In 1985, 68-year-old Beatrice resident Helen Wilson was raped and murdered. In their efforts to close, rather than solve, the case, law enforcement chose to inculpate six innocent people of the crime. Elements of the officials’ plot included: ignoring solid alibis, using illegal interrogations, using contradictory evidence, and from three of the six innocents who suffered from psychologic disorders, coerced confessions.
James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph White, and Thomas Winslow would remain imprisoned until a DNA test in a postconviction proceeding on White’s behalf excluded all six from the rape and murder. “By then, the real suspect identified by DNA tests was dead,” The Washington Post reports. “The semen and blood found at the scene matched Bruce Allen Smith, a onetime Beatrice resident who died in 1992.”
The ensuing wrongful conviction lawsuit would make its way to a federal appeals court twice. The first visit resulted in a remand for trial for conspiracy by Gage County officials against the six innocent convictees. The trial was held, and a jury awarded the former convictees a total of $28,100,000. After being affirmed on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused certiorari on March 4, 2019, making the award due and payable.
In order to pay out such a massive amount of money, property tax rates have been elevated to the maximum allowable by the state constitution. For all its fiscal efforts, Gage County is mainly rural, and the most it can raise yearly is about $3,000,000 toward paying its new $28,100,000 debt.
State Senator Myron Dorn introduced a bill in the legislature to help pay the judgment. Because of Nebraska’s current fiscal problems, the bill will probably not pass. Other related bills Dorn introduced would allow a county or municipality facing federal court judgments to impose a one-half cent sales tax on purchases made in the affected jurisdiction, allow county and municipal governments facing large wrongful conviction judgments to secure state-supplied low-interest loans, and a third would allow these jurisdictions to file claims with the state to obtain the needed money to pay such judgments. Nebraska statute 29-4601 et seq., caps state-paid wrongful conviction compensation at $500,000.
Sources: forensicmag.com, omaha.com, law.umich.edu, washingtonpost.com
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