BEATRICE – The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the so-called Beatrice Six, upholding a U.S. District Court Jury finding and verdict against Gage County.
The Appeals panel said in its ruling issued today that it declines to overturn prior rulings and vacate the jury’s verdict.
Gage County had appealed the verdict and more than $28 million judgment against it, in the convictions of Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, Debra Shelden, Kathleen Gonzalez and James Dean. The six were arrested and served time for the February 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson, of Beatrice.
White was convicted at trial, while the others reached plea agreements. The six were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008, gaining pardons from the State of Nebraska in 2009. The group later filed a lawsuit saying their arrests and imprisonment were the result of a reckless investigation, manufactured false evidence and coerced confessions.
The ruling was critical of the late former Gage County Sheriff Jerry Dewitt for how the investigation was conducted, and that the jury had enough to find the county liable for damages. The Appeals Panel also found the jury had sufficient evidence that a then-private investigator and later sheriff’s deputy conducted a reckless investigation, “purposefully ignoring” physical evidence at the crime scene. The panel was also critical of a law enforcement psychologist in the interrogation of the defendants.
In the ruling, the court said it was an “obvious case” where the “unlawfulness of deputies conduct is sufficiently clear”. It went on to say the evidence supports a conclusion that deputies knowingly violated the due process rights of the defendants by applying “systematic pressure” to implicate the defendants…and by “purposefully ignoring” exonerating evidence.
In denying a new trial, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court noted there are certain types of law enforcement conduct that “do more than offend some fastidious squeamishness or private sentimentalism about combatting crime” and which the Constitution forbids. It said this case is an example of such conduct.
The appeals court affirmed the U.S. District Court trial ruling and judgment.