More than a month after a jury’s award of $28 million to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 Beatrice killing became official, lawyers for the plaintiffs have more forcefully asserted their position that it is time for Gage County to pay.
The lawyers have raised the prospect of seeking the payments ordered in the civil rights judgment personally from the members of the Gage County Board of Supervisors if the board does not act swiftly to pay with county funds.
They also could seek a judge’s order to compel the board to raise property taxes or seek a loan from the state.
“It is time for the defendants to make arrangements to pay the judgments, or at least secure a guarantee of prompt payment if the appeal is decided in plaintiffs’ favor,” Jeff Patterson, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, wrote in a letter that was sent Monday to the defendants’ counsel. Patterson, who also emailed a copy of the letter to reporters, said he hoped that the board would discuss it at its meeting today.
Myron Dorn, chairman of the Gage County Board of Supervisors, said Tuesday night that he had not seen the letter and declined to answer questions about it until he had.
U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf last week rejected a Gage County motion to delay payment pending the outcome of an appeal.
The lawsuit was filed in 2009 by six people who spent more than 70 years combined in prison for a slaying that they did not commit. They were convicted in 1989, four years after 68-year-old Helen Wilson was found beaten, raped and suffocated in her Beatrice apartment.
Gage County lawyers have said that the county would be forced to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy if the plaintiffs were allowed to collect the damages while the verdict is being appealed. The board lacks insurance to cover the judgment.
Patterson’s letter argues that state law makes it clear that the county must use its levy authority to pay the judgment. Instead, it lowered its property tax levy on Sept. 14, Patterson wrote.
If the county is unable to raise sufficient funds through a levy, state law directs that it apply to the state treasurer for a loan, Patterson wrote.
Court-ordered DNA testing of blood and semen preserved from the crime scene in 2008 matched none of the six plaintiffs wrongfully convicted.
Authorities later matched the DNA with Bruce Allen Smith, a former Beatrice resident who died in 1992.