A federal appeals court ruled that Gage County authorities likely manufactured the false testimony used to convict six people of the 1985 rape and murder of a Beatrice widow.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis applies to two separate civil rights claims brought by five members of the so-called “Beatrice Six.” Monday's decision means the cases can proceed to jury trials in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.
The five plaintiffs, who all served prison time for the Feb. 2, 1985, murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson, are seeking unspecified monetary damages from Gage County, including several current and former members of the sheriff's office, for violations of their constitutionally guaranteed right to due process.
“They are obviously gratified to have their day in court,” said Lincoln attorney Robert Bartle, who is representing four of the five plaintiffs in the case.
A message left with the lawyer representing Gage County was not immediately returned Monday.
DNA testing unavailable at the time of the murder showed Wilson was raped and killed by an Oklahoma City man who died in 1992. A subsequent investigation exonerated the six of any involvement in the Wilson case, and they were granted pardons by Nebraska's highest elected officials.
One federal claim was brought by Joseph White, the only one of the accused to maintain his innocence. The appeals court affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Warren Urbom that enough evidence exists to send White's case to trial.
“The evidence suggests that defendants systematically and intentionally coached witnesses into providing false testimony,” the court's opinion stated.
The other case involves Ada JoAnn Taylor, Kathleen Gonzalez, James Dean and Thomas Winslow, who appealed a lower court decision that dismissed their claims. The appeals court reversed U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf's ruling that investigators did not knowingly use false evidence to obtain the convictions.
“The evidence allows a reasonable inference that defendants' investigation crossed the line from gross negligence to recklessness and that the defendants manufactured false evidence to complete their investigation,” the opinion stated.
All four of the former defendants reached plea bargains that required their cooperation with the prosecution in exchange for reduced charges. Taylor and Dean both testified against White at his trial.
The panel did uphold the part of Kopf's earlier ruling that determined those who cooperated with the state failed to show their false confessions were unconstitutionally coerced.
The three-judge panel qualified their findings somewhat by indicating at this stage, they are obligated to view the facts in the light “most favorable” to the plaintiffs.
The appeals were argued before the panel in April.
The defendants in the civil rights lawsuits include former Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, Burt Searcey, the lead investigator in the case, and Wayne Price, a psychologist and part-time deputy who had professionally treated several of the accused before the Wilson homicide. Both Price and Searcey continue to work in the sheriff's office.
Former Gage County Attorney Richard Smith was granted immunity and dismissed from the civil rights claims.
Nebraska has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to White, Gonzalez and Winslow under a law that allows the wrongfully convicted to seek compensation. Taylor and Dean recently won similar claims in Gage County District Court, but the state is appealing because it argues they are not entitled to compensation because they gave perjured testimony at White's trial.
White, who died in a workplace accident in 2011 while living in his home state of Alabama, is now represented in the case by his mother.