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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
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Court Revives Claims of 1985 Rape Exonerees

(CN) - Four people exonerated of ties to a 1985 rape and murder can sue the police who "systematically coached witnesses into providing false testimony," the 8th Circuit ruled.

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

DNA testing found 19 years later that the semen and blood found in Wilson's apartment were from Bruce Smith, a now-deceased man with no connection to the six convicted of the crime.

After Nebraska pardoned the six individuals, five of them, excluding Shelden, sued the county prosecutor and members of the sheriff's department for recklessly investigating Wilson's murder and manufacturing false evidence against them.

A federal judge denied the defendants qualified immunity in White's case, but dismissed the claims of Taylor, Winslow, Dean and Gonzalez for insufficient evidence.

On appeal, the 8th Circuit affirmed the ruling in White's case and revived some of the other plaintiffs' claims. The court released its findings in a pair of rulings.

"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.

"The record indicates that none of the suspects possessed any independent knowledge of facts that were consistent with the evidence found at the crime scene," Shepherd added, noting that each suspect initially denied any knowledge of the murder, although only White maintained his innocence.

In their confessions, "each of White's alleged accomplices refused to admit to an active role in the rape and murder of Wilson," the decision states. "Instead, White's alleged accomplices universally maintained that they were mere bystanders during the rape and murder. Based on the evidence in the interview transcripts, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that White's alleged accomplices were all coached by Defendants into reciting some semblance of a coherent story."

"Ultimately, White was placed in the nightmare scenario of having to maintain his innocence in the face of five co-defendants who were systematically manipulated or convinced into falsely accusing White of rape and murder," Shepherd said.

As in White's case, the 8th Circuit found that Taylor, Winslow, Smith and Gonzalez presented evidence "to allow the reasonable inference that Defendants recklessly investigated the Wilson murder and purposefully manufactured false evidence to implicate plaintiffs."

"Specifically, there is evidence that suggests Defendants systematically coached witnesses into providing false testimony that was in line with the narrative of the Defendants' theory as to how the murder had been committed," Shepherd wrote.

The circuit court revived these plaintiffs' claims for reckless investigation and manufacturing evidence, but affirmed that they did not have the evidence to plead that their confessions were coerced.

"Each plaintiff had at least a month from the time that he or she was arrested to the time that he or she eventually pled guilty," Shepherd wrote. "There is no evidence they were denied provisions or that they were subjected to harsh living conditions. Furthermore, Plaintiffs were each represented by counsel during the bulk of the time that passed between their arrest and eventual guilty plea. We agree with the district court that the evidence is inadequate to show that their guilty pleas were not voluntary or knowing."

The court affirmed that qualified immunity shields prosecutor Richard Smith, but found that the police defendants may be held liable.

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