Five years after a group of Nebraskans dubbed the “Beatrice Six” were exonerated after serving years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, a civil trial against Gage County and various law enforcement officials involved in the wrongful conviction began on Monday in U.S. District Court. In its lawsuit, the group claims authorities conducted a reckless investigation and manufactured evidence against them.
In 1985, Helen Wilson, a 65-year-old woman from Beatrice, Nebraska, was raped and murdered in her home. Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez were convicted of the crime four years later based on faulty forensics and false confessions.
Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden each served more than four years in prison before being released in 1994. Winslow, Taylor and White served 18 years before being exonerated. The Beatrice Six became the first people in Nebraska’s history to be exonerated through DNA evidence. Results identified the real perpetrator, but he died in 1992 before he could be tried for the murder.
reported that an attorney for Gage County told jurors that investigators relied on the statements and confessions of the accused and didn’t have the advantage of DNA testing. Maren Chaloupka, an attorney for the “Beatrice Six” disagreed and said authorities knew that advanced blood typing tests on blood and semen excluded the main defendants but proceeded with the prosecution anyway.
According to Chaloupka, authorities fed crime scene details to the accused when they said they couldn’t remember what happened and also used threats and promises of more lenient treatment to coerce Dean, Shelden and Gonzalez into making false confessions.
Taylor was awarded $500,000, the maximum allowed by the state, and Dean was awarded $300,000 under the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act of 2009. But the state is appealing both payments claiming they committed perjury at White’s trial. White, Winslow and Gonzalez also received six-figure settlements from the state. Jury awards in other wrongful conviction cases across the country have exceeded the million dollar mark.
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