Gage County has lost in court once again and, again, faces a $26 million judgment in the case of the so-called Beatrice Six.
The 8th United States Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a federal district court jury ruling against the county, finding the county and two deputies guilty for falsely accusing the six people in the brutal rape and murder of Helen Wilson in her Beatrice apartment in 1985.
DNA tests later confirmed Bruce Allen Smith, who died in prison in Oklahoma, was guilty of the crime.
The appeals court issued a 25-page opinion Monday upholding the jury verdict.
Gage County had appealed the verdict against it in the convictions of Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylorr, Thomas Winslow, Debra Shelden, Kathleen Gonzalez, and James Dean. White was convicted at trial. The others reached plea agreements. All served time in prison.
After DNA evidence exonerated the six in 2008, the state formally pardoned them in 2009.
The group later filed a lawsuit saying their arrests and imprisonment were the result of a reckless investigation, manufactured false evidence and coerced confessions.
The ruling was critical of the late former Gage County Sheriff Jerry Dewitt for how the investigation was conducted, and that the jury had enough to find the county liable for damages. The Appeals Panel also found the jury had sufficient evidence that a then-private investigator and later sheriff’s deputy conducted a reckless investigation, “purposefully ignoring” physical evidence at the crime scene. The panel was also critical of a law enforcement psychologist in the interrogation of the defendants.
Doug Kennedy, KWBE, contributed to this story.