“Failure of Justice” by John Ferak traces the investigation of the February 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson and the story of the six people wrongfully convicted of the crime.
Ferak says the case relates to the current debate over the death penalty in Nebraska.
“The death penalty was used as an instrument to get a lot of these individuals to plead guilty, and they kind of fall over like a stack of dominos,” Ferak tells Nebraska Radio Network in an interview prior to speaking with University of Nebraska law students.
He wonders if investigators had not used the punishment as a “scary carrot dangled over their heads,” would things have turned out differently.
“We don’t know the answer to that, but it very well could have,” Ferak says.
The book goes into the backstories of the six suspects. Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada Joann Taylor, James Dean, Debra Shelden, and Kathy Gonzalez were ages 23 to 30 and struggling to survive in the small Nebraska town at the time of the crime.
“They were easy pickings, basically, for a local sheriff or sheriff’s official who was out to make a name for himself or just kind of bring some piece of mind to the victim’s family and the community of Beatrice,” Ferak says.
DNA testing years later showed none of the six were responsible for Wilson’s rape and murder, but Ferak says some people still believe that members of the group were involved.
He thinks the Gage County prosecutor and Sheriff’s investigator produced bad evidence and confessions.
“The jury really doesn’t realize how these folks [the accused] have been manipulated and told and told and told again, ‘Here’s what really happened. Here’s what you need to say. Here’s a video of the crime scene.’ So, when the jury is hearing this information, probably to their ears it’s like ‘Well, these guys were really there. This sounds really credible and believable.’”
Ferak is a former Omaha World-Herald reporter who did not cover the original case. He now writes for USA Today Network in Wisconsin.
Ferak says he reviewed thousands of pages of police reports and court records before writing the book, and interviewed some of the people involved.
He is speaking at Concordia University, Nebraska campus Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. in the Thom Leadership Education Center Auditorium. The presentation is free and open to the public.
Ferak is giving a talk and will sign copies of “Failure of Justice” at Indigo Bridge Books, 701 P Street, Suite 102 in Lincoln Sept. 14 from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
AUDIO: Mike Loizzo reports [:44]
INTERVIEW: Mike Loizzo talks with John Ferak about “Failure of Justice” [27:50]