Gage County leaders plan to appeal a judge’s decision that found the county did not have coverage through EMC and the Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, or NIRMA, in the Beatrice Six case.
Attorney Joel Nelson says the issues raised are further complicated by the amount of time covered between when the crime was committed and when the six were exonerated.
“The big gap in time between the events of 1989 and the claims in 2009 was certainly a prime reason that in 2009 NIRMA said there’s no coverage,” Nelson says.
Lancaster County District Judge Jodi Nelson recently ruled that the liability policies Gage County bought in 1989 do not cover the county’s mishandling of the case.
Attorney Joel Bacon said there’s also an issue with how NIRMA should have responded in 2009 when the six were freed from prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
“In terms of at least providing a defense, at least saying, ‘This is complicated, this is messy, it may take a long time to sort it out, we are unsure we would ever have to pay these judgments, but in the meantime, we’re going to defend you, county,” Bacon says.
Gage County was ordered to compensate six wrongfully-convicted people, known as the Beatrice Six, after they spent a combined 70 years in prison for the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. DNA testing exonerated the six in 2009. The suspect who was implicated by the DNA died in 1992.
Gage County supervisor Matt Bauman says the size of the judgment lends a different light to the issue of coverage.
“If it’s a $30,000 bill versus a $30-million bill, things are a little different,” Bauman says. “It’s hard for me to get past the fact there’s probably some attempt to mitigate any future damage in the state of Nebraska with all the counties and municipalities that NIRMA covers.”
Judge Nelson ruled in October that policies Gage County carried through NIRMA were not in effect when the six were arrested. That coverage went into effect in 1997. She reached the same conclusion on the EMC policies, in force between 1989 and 1990.
The county’s insurance attorneys say they’ll try to appeal the latest decision directly to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Gage County is still awaiting a decision on whether the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the county’s appeal of the Beatrice Six jury decision and the judgment of more than $28 million.
By Doug Kennedy, KWBE, Beatrice