Opponents of the death penalty believe they have a winning argument in Nebraska and it centers on the case of the Beatrice Six.
Six people arrested in connection with the rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in her Beatrice home in 1985 were exonerated, but not until they spent a total of 77 years in prison. The six were convicted in 1989, largely due to their confessions to the crime.
Those confessions came under duress after hours of interrogation and the very real threat of execution.
“I think the object lessons we can take from the Beatrice Six case is that the threat of the death penalty did not serve the interest of justice,” Attorney Jeffry Patterson told reporters during a news conference held at the Capitol by the Nebraska Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project works to free inmates from prison through DNA evidence. It opposes the death penalty and points to the convictions of the Beatrice Six of evidence the justice system is too badly broken to decide life and death.
It was DNA evidence that led investigators away from the six convicted in the death of Wilson and to Bruce Allen Smith, a drifter who died in 1992.
DNA testing exonerated James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph White and Thomas Winslow in 2008 and they were freed from prison.
Taylor appeared at the news conference and said she confessed after being threatened. Taylor claimed the sheriff, his deputies, and other law officers would harass her daily, insisting that they had no problem making her the first woman scheduled to die in the electric chair.
Taylor said the threats terrified her.
“It caused me, an innocent person, to plead and actually believe I was guilty of something I did not do,” Taylor said. “But, it’s not a good thing to send an innocent person to prison.”
State legislators advanced LB 268, a bill that would repeal the death penalty. Preliminary approval came on a 30-to-13 vote, just enough to overcome a veto promised by Gov. Pete Ricketts. That total, though, is not enough to overcome a filibuster which might be mounted by opponents during the second round of debate.
Nebraska had used the electric chair for executions until the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009. The state switched to lethal injection. Nebraska last carried out an execution in 1997. Eleven prisoners now reside on death row.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:55]