Justices: Nebraska county owes $28M for wrongful convictions

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a rural Nebraska county’s appeal of a $28 million court judgment aimed at compensating six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 slaying.

The justices turned away Gage County’s last-ditch effort to avoid the hefty judgment, after a federal appeals court in St. Louis found the award was justified because of egregious law enforcement conduct. In August, the county raised its local property tax levy as high as state law allows to pay off the debt — a move that could become a major drag on the local economy.

All six people were wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of Helen Wilson. They spent more than 75 years combined in prison until DNA evidence cleared them in 2008. Wilson’s death has since been linked to a former Beatrice, Nebraska, resident who died in 1992. Beatrice is about 100 miles (161 kilometers) southwest of Omaha.

Jeff Patterson, an attorney for four of the six who were wrongfully accused, said his clients “are just happy that things are moving along” with the case.

The lawsuit alleged that law enforcement officials recklessly strove to close the case despite contradictory evidence and coerced false confessions. The three people who gave false confessions all had histories of psychological problems. One of the six, Joseph White, died in a workplace accident in Alabama in 2011.

Gage County expects to spend roughly $3.8 million per year over eight years to cover the legal debt, attorney fees and interest, said Myron Dorn, a former county supervisor who helped approve the payment plan.

Because the county is mostly rural farmland, Dorn said roughly half of the total burden will fall on land-rich farmers whose incomes have plummeted because of low crop prices.

For a typical mid-sized farmer, the 12-cent increase per $100 of taxable value could mean an extra $14,000 in property taxes owed over the next eight years. Dorn said one major producer is bracing to pay nearly $100,000 in additional taxes.

Homeowners will feel the feel the pinch as well. The owner of a $100,000 home will pay an additional $120 in property taxes each year — nearly $1,000 in total — until the county pays its debt.

“We’re going to notice it, big time,” said Don Schuller, a farmer who has lobbied state lawmakers for help with the debt . “That’s a big chunk of money out of the economy of Gage County.”

Schuller said he was concerned the sharp increase could make voters more reluctant to approve bond measures for school construction and other projects that might help the economy. He argued that state officials should shoulder some of the burden because the six were threatened with the state-sanctioned death penalty , prosecuted under state law and served their time in state prisons.

Some officials say the tax increase is the price residents should pay for a badly botched investigation that put innocent people in prison for a combined 75 years. State Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, has said residents “made their bed, now they have to sleep in it.”

Dorn, who is now a state senator, introduced legislation this year that would allow the county to apply for state assistance to help pay off the judgment, but he isn’t optimistic lawmakers will approve it given the state’s budget troubles.

“The probability of that happening is probably pretty slim this year,” he said.

Many residents have complained they weren’t responsible for the wrongful conviction, and some argue they didn’t even live in Gage County at the time. Art Nietfeld, who owns farmland near the Kansas border, told a legislative committee last month that he’ll owe an estimated $10,000 in additional property taxes to pay his share of the judgment.

“I sure didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said.

After the first trial ended in a mistrial in 2015, the 8th Circuit ruled that there was substantial evidence to support allegations that Gage County officials conspired to convict the six people. That included evidence that investigators conducted unreported interrogations, ignored verifiable alibis and suggested that three of the six had repressed memories of the crime.

The wrongfully accused, known as the Beatrice Six, are Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez. White was killed in a factory accident in 2011, about less than three years after winning his freedom.

Maren Chaloupka, a Scottsbluff attorney who represented Shelden, said all of the wrongfully convicted were thankful that the case had come to a close.

“This is a day our clients have waited for for a very long time,” she said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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