Judge awards $800K for wrongful convictions

Nebraska Attorney General’s Office says it will appeal the decision

By Margery A. Beck
Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A judge has awarded $800,000 to two people wrongly convicted in the 1985 killing of a Beatrice woman.

Ada JoAnn Taylor and James Dean sued the state for $500,000 each, saying they were wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of Helen Wilson in 1985. Four others, collectively known as the Beatrice Six, were pardoned in 2009 after DNA evidence exonerated them.

Five of the six sued, seeking $500,000 each under a 2009 state law that allows the state to compensate the wrongfully imprisoned. The law was created, in part, by Beatrice Six’s wrongful convictions.

The state quickly settled with two of the six, paying Joseph White $500,000 and Kathleen Gonzalez $350,000. But it balked at compensating Taylor, Dean and Thomas Winslow, saying they perjured themselves when they confessed to roles in the killing, making them ineligible to collect damages.

Last year, Winslow accepted a $180,000 settlement from the state, but Taylor and Dean went to trial, arguing that faulty interrogation tactics led them to falsely confess to the killing.

On Thursday, Gage County District Judge Daniel Bryan agreed and awarded $500,000 in damages to Taylor, noting that she spent nearly 20 years in prison, and $300,000 in damages to Dean, who spent 5 1/2 years in prison.

In both of their cases, the judge said neither intended to make false statements, nor did law enforcement intend for them to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

But the blame for their false confessions “rests primarily on law enforcement’s mistakes, whether intentional or unintentional,” the judge wrote in his order.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office says it will appeal the decision.

“Mr. Dean and Ms. Taylor provided false testimony that led to the conviction of an innocent man,” Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said in a statement Thursday. “We continue to believe the Nebraska Legislature did not intend to provide recovery to those who commit perjury under the Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act. We will appeal this decision.”

Taylor’s attorney, Bob Bartle, said Taylor is grateful and relieved by the judge’s decision and added that he hopes Bruning will take “a long hard look” at the opinion before deciding to appeal.
“It was a very detailed order that Judge Bryan put into place,” Bartle said. “An appeal, of course, would delay further JoAnn’s ability to recover from what was just an awful injustice that was done to her.”

Dean’s attorney, Herb Freidman of Lincoln, said Dean is “very happy” about the award, and said he and his client have no choice but to wait to see whether the Nebraska attorney general follows through with an appeal.

“Their argument was a statutory interpretation ... and we think their interpretation of it is not valid,” Friedman said. “That’s why we have courts.”

The Beatrice Six spent a combined 87 years in prison before DNA tests conducted in 2008 cleared them. They were the first people in Nebraska to be exonerated of murder based on DNA evidence following a 2007 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling allowing new DNA tests in old convictions.

Decades earlier, investigators described a gruesome scene in which 68-year-old Helen Wilson, of Beatrice, was held down and raped in front of a group of people. Her hands were bound, and she died of suffocation.

But officials in 2008, based on the new DNA evidence, said the crimes were the work of one man, Bruce Allen Smith, who arrived in Beatrice, where he grew up, days before the slaying, then returned to Oklahoma days later. He died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 30.