When forensic evidence cleared the Beatrice Six in 2008, it rocked the small Nebraska region of Gage County. The six men and women who made up the group — Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Debra Shelden, and Kathleen Gonzalez — were proved to be innocent in the 1985 murder case of Helen Wilson. It was the first time in the state’s history that anyone wrongfully convicted was exonerated by DNA. The victim’s actual killer was determined to be someone who was deceased for decades, and this finding was discovered through the same evidence that helped vindicate the six.
The only one of the six who maintained his innocence from the start and the one who petitioned to have DNA in the case retested, Joseph White, had his conviction overturned. His five co-defendants were pardoned by the state of Nebraska. Yet, the Gage County officials knew they had a long journey ahead. Six innocent people had spent time in prison for a crime they didn’t commit and would soon come knocking for compensation for time served. In the case of the Beatrice Six, it came with a costly price tag.
Gage County owes the Beatrice Six millions
In 2016, a federal jury awarded the Beatrice Six $28 million in damages in their civil suit against Gage County. They granted $7.3 million to the three who had spent more than 18 years in prison — Taylor, Winslow, and White — $2 million to Dean and Gonzalez, and $1.8 million to Shelden, who had all done half of their 10-year sentences. However, lawyers for Gage County would immediately appeal the ruling. They would even seek out insurance claims in 2017 to pay for the hefty payout, but policy limits would prove that the county did not qualify for eligibility because they joined the state’s crisis insurer long after most of the group was sentenced, reported Omaha World-Herald. The county would later appeal that decision, too.
Officials for Gage County would continue scrambling to get out of paying the multi-million dollar lawsuit. When a federal court upheld the decision in 2018, county board members announced plans to increase taxes on residents to assist the government in making payments for the lawsuit, per The New York Times.
Gage county struggles to pay the Beatrice Six
Years before, officials had an opportunity to settle with the Beatrice Six for $15 million, but they decided against it. But last year a little victory would come for the county when officials settled with insurers to pay them close to $6 million in regard to payment for the Beatrice Six. Today, the county still collects money from increased property taxes to go toward the judgment. The current tax hike is expected to be scrapped by 2027, says Beatrice Daily Sun.
In a final attempt, Gage County also sought to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the bench denied hearing the case in 2019. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, the county has already paid off half the settlement. Including court fees, there’s a remaining balance of $16 million left to pay. So last month, the county asked the state of Nebraska to help with payments. Currently, the state is potentially moving forward with a legislative measure aiming to help the county pay off the six wrongfully convicted, reported News Channel Nebraska.
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