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Beatrice Six Appeals Wrongful Conviction Case to 8th Cir.

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on March 06, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Eighth Circuit will consider reinstating Gage County as a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit over the wrongful conviction of six people, dubbed the "Beatrice Six," for the 1985 murder of a Nebraska woman.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf dismissed Gage County from the case. This week, he granted the plaintiffs' motion to have the Eight Circuit review his dismissal of the county as a defendant, The Omaha World Herald reports.

District Court Case

James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph White and Thomas Winslow served a combined 77 years in prison for the 1985 killing of Helen Wilson before DNA testing exonerated them in 2008.

The estate of White, who died in 2011, and the surviving five filed suit against Gage County, and the sheriff and two deputies, in their official roles, for the handling of the cold-case murder investigation in 1989. They were seeking at least $14 million in damages for violations of their civil rights.

In their suit, the six alleged the Gage County sheriff's investigation into Wilson's 1985 killing was so reckless it led to the wrongful conviction. They leveled serious allegations, including being coerced into making damaging statements (three of the six confessed and implicated the others.)

Roping in the county, the suit alleged the county was liable for failing to properly train and supervise sheriff's officials.

Gage County Removed as Defendant

Mid-trial, Kopf dismissed the claims against the county, ruling the that the lawyers for the Beatrice Six failed to prove the county maintained an official policy, unofficial custom, or deliberate indifferent failure to train or supervise the sheriff and deputies in a manner that led to the wrongful convictions.

In January, the civil rights trial went forward against the three -- deputies Burdette Searcey and Wayne Price and the estate of late Sheriff Jerry DeWitt -- individually and ended in mistrial, setting up a retrial.

Retrial and Potential Reinstatement of County

Now, the entire case will be on hold, pending a decision from the Eighth Circuit, The Associated Press reports.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf said the plaintiffs should not have to wait until the end of the second trial before being allowed to appeal the dismissal of the county.

"If the plaintiffs were successful on appeal, a third trial would then be necessary," Kopf wrote in his order. "This would not be an efficient use of judicial resources, and it would subject all parties to unnecessary expense and other burdens of trial."

Without the county as a defendant, the plaintiffs will be significantly limited in the damages they stand to recover.

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