“The only good thing I can tell you about this case is that no one was electrocuted.”
Almost 19 years after a 68-year-old woman was raped and murdered in her Beatrice, Neb., home, a federal jury has started hearing evidence in a civil rights case alleging law enforcement officials recklessly investigated the crime, leading to the wrongful convictions of six people.
The so-called Beatrice Six — three men and three women — collectively served 77 years in prison before DNA testing cleared them of the murder of Helen Wilson. It was the first time that such testing was used in Nebraska to overturn guilty verdicts.
“The only good thing I can tell you about this case is that no one was electrocuted,” Herb Friedman, the attorney for plaintiff James Dean, told jurors in Lincoln, Neb., earlier this week.
Dean and his co-plaintiffs — Ada JoAnn Taylor, Kathleen Gonzalez, Thomas Winslow, Debra Shelden and the heirs of Joseph White, who died in 2011 — could be awarded millions of dollars in damages if the jury finds that Gage County law enforcement officials violated their constitutional rights by arresting them in 1989 after a cold-case investigation. Police in 1985 had excluded the suspects because they did not match the physical evidence found at the crime scene.
According to the plaintiffs, Gage County Sheriff’s Cpl. Burt Searcey, who led the cold-case investigation, was so obsessed with the case that he ignored exculpatory evidence and omitted key information in obtaining arrest warrants.
But the county contends investigators acted appropriately at a time when DNA testing wasn’t available. Taylor, Dean and Winslow all confessed in detail and implicated the other suspects in the rape and killing of Wilson, and all but White entered pleas admitting guilt.
“Now they have a different story,” Pat O’Brien, an attorney for the county, argued.
Wilson was sexually assaulted, stabbed and suffocated to death in her apartment sometime during the night of Feb. 5, 1985. Based largely on the confessions of Taylor, Dean and Winslow, police theorized that two of the male suspects raped the victim and that one of the women suffocated her with a pillow.
The convictions were overturned after White and Winslow obtained court orders requiring DNA testing of semen samples from the crime scene. Prosecutors said the results matched the profile of Bruce Allen Smith, who had been identified as a suspect within days of the crime. In January 2009, the Beatrice Six were pardoned by the state.
Plaintiffs in wrongful conviction cases usually face a heavy burden in proving police officers acted with recklessness. But a federal appeals court in October 2012 found there was evidence that “suggests defendants systematically coached witnesses into providing false testimony that was in line with the narrative of the defendants’ theory as to how the [Wilson] murder had been committed.”
Another plaintiffs’ attorney, Maren Chaloupka, said investigators zeroed in on Taylor, Dean and Winslow because they were low-functioning and mentally ill. An expert witness is expected to testify that such suspects are the most prone to give false confessions.
“They were poor, they were transient, they didn’t have anybody to stick up for them,” Chaloupka said.