What is the price tag on being sent to jail for a murder you didn't commit?
In a U.S. Federal District courtroom in Lincoln, Neb. today a jury is being chosen to answer that question.
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, or pleading guilty, or no contest to charges related to the murder and rape of a 68-year-old woman. The case 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.
The civil trial will determine if Thomas Winslow, Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Ada JoAnn Taylor deserve compensation for the years they spent in prison while the real killer was free. 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, has since died.
There were 24 prospective jurors being questioned by attorneys representing both sides. While there has been dozens of prominent articles written on the case over the years, only three of jurors being questioned claimed to have heard anything about it. The group was also asked how they felt about the concept of false confessions; when people confess and even plead guilty to crimes for which they are innocent. At least four of the potential jurors admitted they had difficulty seeing how that could happen.
The legal teams will be able to eliminate some of the jurors prior to the trial beginning.
The history of the case still seems unbelievable.
In February 1985 someone raped and murdered of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in her home in Beatrice. The crime horrified the town and after four years local police hadn't made an arrest. After Searcey , a new deputy, took over the case for the Gage County Sheriff's Department, the investigation moved quickly. When the Sheriff announced six people had confessed to the crime it was a sensational development.
Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden agreed to plead guilty and testify against White in exchange shorter sentences. White was convicted of first degree murder and sentence to life in prison. Thomas Winslow confessed to raping Ms. Wilson and he was sentenced to 10 to 50 years in prison.
Years later, the evidence presented at trial, based largely on the group’s confessions, began to fall apart. As summarized in the first filing in Winslow's lawsuit his accusers, "solicited, fabricated, manufactured and coerced evidence of an ever-changing story, which rarely, if ever, coincided with the immutable physical evidence at the scene of the crime." Some of the confessions were based on the recollections of dreams some of the accused claimed to have had.
The six accused killers appealed, asking for testing to compare their DNA with samples collected at the original crime scene. In 2007 the Nebraska Supreme Court allowed the new tests. There was no match for any of the six. As a result, they became the first people in Nebraska to be exonerated in a murder case because of DNA evidence.
In September 2012, under the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act, Taylor was awarded $500,000, the maximum allowed by the state. Dean was awarded $300,000 of 2009. Nebraska law doesn't allow paying anyone who's been wrongly jailed any more than half a million. The judge who signed off on the settlement didn't think it was enough. In his opinion granting the settlement, Gage County District Judge Daniel E. Bryan
Judge Bryan wrote “To try to attempt to place any value on one’s liberty to be free is a Herculean task."
The state didn't think the Beatrice Six deserved any compensation for their years in prison. Attorney General Jon Bruning appealed the decision.
The DNA tests did not just clear the innocent. They also identified the likely killer, and there was only one. Bruce Allen Smith, of Oklahoma had been visiting his old home town at the same time as Ms. Wilson's rape and murder. He went back home in a hurry. He was only 30 when he died, seven years after the crime.
Meanwhile, the story will be retold again for the 12 jurors chosen to decide whether they felt members of the Gage County Sheriff’s Department set out to fabricate evidence and if so, what is the extent… and the cost… of the damages done to six people sent to prison for a murder they did not commit.