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‘Beatrice Six’ Win $28M for Wrongful Convictions

(CN) — A Nebraska county must pay $28.1 million to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 rape and murder after a jury found that two officers coerced them into false confessions.

In 1989, Joseph White, Ada Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden were convicted for the 1985 murder and rape of Helen Wilson in Beatrice, Neb.

A jury found White guilty of Wilson's murder based on Dean and Taylor's testimony, which was coerced under threats they would be given the death penalty if they did not testify.

The other five pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree murder. They were each sentenced to between 10 and 40 years in prison.

Nineteen years later, DNA testing found that the semen and blood in Wilson's apartment were from Bruce Smith, a now-deceased man with no connection to the six people convicted of the crime.

After Nebraska pardoned the six individuals, they sued Gage County, Sheriff's Deputy Burt Searcey, psychologist Wayne Price, and late Sheriff Jerry DeWitt for recklessly investigating Wilson's murder and manufacturing false evidence against them.

The case went to trial after the Eighth Circuit denied the officers qualified immunity.

"The evidence suggests that defendants systematically and intentionally coached witnesses into providing false testimony that fit defendants' particular narrative of how the crime was committed," Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote for a three-member panel with regard to White's case.

A jury agreed, and voted Tuesday to award the six wrongly convicted plaintiffs $28.1 million. The verdict was against Gage County, plus Searcey and Price individually.

"All the plaintiffs are happy with the result. The trial team consisted of five lawyers and we all worked very hard," plaintiffs' attorney Herb Friedman said in an interview. "It was a difficult case, a complicated case, and the jury worked exceptionally hard. I salute them."

White's estate, Winslow, and Taylor will each receive $7.3 million. Dean and Gonzalez will receive $2 million each, and Shelden was awarded $1.8 million.

Taylor and Dean previously received $500,000 and $300,000, respectively, under the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act.

Friedman said the jury's decision "sends out a strong message that this type of law enforcement conduct isn't tolerated in Nebraska or any place."

The jury found that Searcey was so eager to solve the cold case, he hounded White and ignored evidence that supported White's innocence.

Price, who worked both as a counselor and a sheriff's deputy, provided therapy for two of the six suspects before they were arrested, then met with them as a deputy, in violation of professional psychology standards.

This verdict brings finality to the six individuals' struggle to win compensation for the violations of their civil rights. A 2014 trial on the same facts ended in a hung jury.

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