BEATRICE, Neb. — Gage County is appealing a $28.1 million civil judgment it faces in a lawsuit filed by six people who were wrongly convicted of the 1985 rape and homicide of a Beatrice woman.
The Lincoln Journal Star reports (http://bit.ly/2dHvfyJ ) that the county is asking the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case and block the verdict that a federal judge issued this summer.
The appeal should also buy more time for Gage County officials to come up with a plan to raise the money if the judgment is upheld.
“The defendants (Gage County and two sheriff’s deputies involved in the investigation) are not in a financial position to easily pay a judgment if the judgment is affirmed on appeal,” said attorney Jennifer Tomka, who represents the county.
The six people who sued spent a combined 77 years in prison in the death of 68-year-old Helen Wilson before DNA testing cleared them in 2008.
Tomka said the most the county’s two insurance companies could come up with for the judgment was $7 million. And there are limits on how much the county can collect from taxpayers in a given year.
“It is simply not possible for Gage County to easily pay a judgment in this case. An increase of 1 cent levy in Gage County will raise $322,815.83,” Tomka wrote
If Gage County were forced to pay the award now, the county would have to consider filing for bankruptcy protection, Tomka said.
The six who sued the county argued that investigators recklessly strove to close the case despite contradictory evidence, rather than seek justice.
James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow and Joseph White were the first people in the state cleared by DNA evidence, which was made possible by a 2007 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling.
Wilson’s killing has since been linked to Bruce Allen Smith, who grew up in Beatrice. Investigators said Smith returned to the town days before the slaying and then quickly went back to Oklahoma. He died in 1992.
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com