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Bill to allow sales tax for ‘Beatrice Six’ payment advances

April 4, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska county that owes $28.1 million for the wrongful convictions of six people in a 1985 murder case is one step closer to imposing a new half-cent sales tax to pay off the judgment faster.

State lawmakers gave initial approval Thursday to a bill that would let Gage County authorize the tax to help cover its legal debt to the so-called Beatrice Six. The Gage County Board of Supervisors endorsed the legislation after raising property taxes as high as state law allows and lobbying lawmakers unsuccessfully for a state-funded bailout.

“The goal is to pay the judgment as quickly as possible,” said state Sen. Myron Dorn, of Adams, a former Gage County supervisor who introduced the bill.

The Beatrice Six collectively spent about 75 years in prison for the death of 68-year-old Helen Wilson until DNA evidence exonerated them in 2008. Wilson’s death has since been linked to a former Beatrice resident who died in 1992.

After they were cleared, the six filed a federal lawsuit against the county alleging that local law enforcement officials coerced false confessions and recklessly pursued a case against them despite contradictory evidence.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away the county’s last-ditch effort to avoid the hefty judgment after a federal appeals court found that the award was justified because of egregious law enforcement conduct.

In September, the county raised its property tax levy to the maximum allowed under state law. The increase will generate an estimated $3.8 million a year and places most of the burden on farmers and homeowners in a mostly rural county with less than 22,000 residents.

The new legislation would help Gage County generate an additional $1.2 million annually through the sales tax, which is paid by consumers in the county regardless of whether they own property or even live there. Both taxes would expire as soon as the judgment is fully paid, and they can’t be used for other purposes. The extra revenue would allow Gage County to satisfy the debt about 1 ½ years early.

Sen. Tom Briese, an Albion farmer who often advocates for lower property taxes, said the bill offered a better way to spread the tax burden than relying on real estate taxes alone.

“Forcing a disproportionate share onto ag producers is hardly a balanced approach,” he said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, said the case shows what can happen when law enforcement uses the threat of capital punishment as leverage to secure a confession. Several of the wrongfully convicted suffered from mental health problems and intellectual disabilities and admitted to the crime after authorities told them they could face the death penalty.

“These people were willing to give up their freedom, their dignity, their self-respect, their innocence, to save their lives,” Chambers said.

Chambers, an ardent death penalty opponent, said he would have blocked any effort to pay off the judgment with state tax dollars. He noted that, despite the high-profile case, residents there still voted to reinstate capital punishment in the 2016 election.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would have allowed the state to pay off the judgment, but lawmakers rejected it because it could have opened the door to other local governments seeking state money for their problems, said Sen. Steve Lathrop, the committee’s chairman.

“There are things that are county responsibilities,” said Lathrop, of Omaha. “And this, I believe, is one of them.”

The bill advanced, 40-1, through the first of three required votes in the Legislature.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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