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Court Upholds $28 Million Award for 'Beatrice Six'

By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 13, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

DNA evidence can cut both ways -- for conviction or exoneration.

In one Nebraska case, it cut deep for exoneration. Six defendants were wrongfully imprisoned for another man's crime before DNA evidence freed them.

But the "Beatrice Six" got their payback when a trial court handed them a $28 million judgment against a small Nebraska County. The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said it was an "obvious case" and affirmed in Dean v. Searcey.

Reckless Investigation

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

They served until 2008, when DNA evidence cleared them all. They then sued the county, alleging a reckless investigation, manufactured evidence and coerced confessions.

A jury agreed and awarded them $28.1 million, attorney's fees and costs. The county appealed, but the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The justices said law enforcement did "more than offend some fastidious squeamishness or private sentimentalism about combatting crime." They said the county conducted a reckless investigation, "purposely ignoring" exonerating evidence.

No "Victory Lap"

Jeff Patterson, who represented the plaintiffs, said they were happy to move on with their lives. But, he said, it was the greatest injustice in state history.

"No one's taking a victory lap," he told the Lincoln Star Journal.

Melanie Whittamore-Mantzios, who represented Gage County, said the county plans to ask for a rehearing.

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