A federal appeals court on Monday upheld a $28.1 million judgment awarded to six people who were wrongfully convicted of murder in one of the nation’s largest false-confession cases, a ruling that could force a Nebraska county closer to bankruptcy.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to overturn the jury’s 2016 verdict against Gage County and two former law enforcement officials. The ruling could create major financial problems for rural Gage County, which collects about $8 million a year in taxes and hired a bankruptcy attorney shortly after the verdict.
The appeals court, which has reviewed the case before, said it saw no reason to overturn the jury’s verdict and described the case as an example of egregious law enforcement conduct.
“After multiple, meticulous reviews of the evidence presented, we have recognized this case as an example of such conduct and a jury has agreed,” wrote Judge Bobby Shepard.
County officials will likely appeal the decision to the full appeals court, said Myron Dorn, the county board’s chairman. Dorn said filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy is “definitely one of the many options” for the county if it continues to lose in court. Gage County has an estimated 22,000 residents and a tax base that relies heavily on farmland in the southeastern corner of the state.
The Gage County Board of Supervisors has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday morning to discuss how to proceed.
Dorn said the county has also hired insurance attorneys who are also trying to prove that the county’s insurer at the time is liable for the damages, a claim the insurance company has denied. County officials may also approach state lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts for financial aid, although previous attempts have failed. Additionally, Dorn said the county might try to reach a settlement for a lesser amount.
“There are a lot of options out there that we’ll be discussing,” he said. “Unfortunately, some of this is going to take some time.”
The verdict was awarded to the Beatrice Six for their wrongful convictions in the 1985 rape and killing of 68-year-old 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 Bruce Allen Smith, who grew up in Beatrice, returned to the town days before the slaying, then quickly went back to his home in Oklahoma City. Smith died in 1992.
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 Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean and Debra Shelden all had histories of psychological problems.
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.
Jeffry Patterson, an attorney for four of the six who were wrongfully accused, said his clients were pleased with the verdict “and want to move forward” to collect the money owed to them.