Gage County petitions U.S. Supreme Court in Beatrice 6 civil case

November 30, 2018
The six people convicted and later cleared of killing Helen Wilson in 1985: (from top left) Joseph White, Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor, Deb Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

Gage County has asked the nation’s highest court to hear its case for overturning a $28.1 million verdict awarded by a federal jury in 2016 to six people wrongfully convicted in a 1985 murder.

Lawyers for Gage County petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 14 to review the jury’s decision to award the multimillion-dollar judgment to the so-called Beatrice 6.

The court, after granting a one-month extension to Gage County to complete its petition, placed the case on its docket Nov. 19 to consider whether it should hear the appeal.

It’s the last legal option available to Gage County in the federal civil rights case filed by Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden in 2009.

Following a 1989 cold case investigation into the rape and murder of Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment four years earlier, the six were convicted and spent a combined 75 years in prison.

DNA evidence later pointed to a seventh person — Bruce Allen Smith, who died in 1992 — as the actual perpetrator.

The six were exonerated in 2008, and the next year, sued Gage County for the reckless investigation that landed them in prison.

After two mistrials, a federal jury found enough evidence that then-deputy Burdette Searcey and then-reserve deputy Wayne Price had violated their rights, awarding them a combined $28.1 million.

Gage County appealed the decision to a three-judge panel from the 8th Circuit Court, but the panel affirmed the jury verdict in June. The 8th Circuit later rejected Gage County’s petition for the appeal to be heard by the full court in July, leaving the Supreme Court as the county’s only option remaining.

The odds of successfully petitioning the Supreme Court are long, however.

The court receives between 7,000 and 8,000 petitions annually, according to its website, but takes up only about 1 percent of those — roughly 80 per year.

Myron Dorn, chairman of the Gage County Board of Supervisors, said in discussing options with its legal team and others, the board wanted to exhaust its options before the time limit on appeals runs out.

“We didn’t want to leave it unexplored,” said Dorn, who will join the Legislature in January as the state senator representing District 30, including Gage County and parts of southern Lancaster County.

Since 2009, Gage County has spent more than $1.76 million on its defense, and will also be on the hook for the legal costs of the six, bringing the total judgment well over $30 million.

In September, the county board approved a property tax increase to begin paying the judgment.

A month later, a Lancaster County District Court judge ruled against the county in two lawsuits against its insurance providers who denied coverage in the Beatrice 6 case. Those decisions are being appealed.

Dorn said taken together, Gage County leaders determined it necessary to explore the last option available.

“The board felt we looked at or tried all these other things and there was some discussion about why it could have a chance,” he added. “Five or 10 years from now, not having looked at it, would we look back and say that was a decision we should have made?”

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