The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a rural Nebraska county’s appeal of a $28 million court judgment rendered in 2016 compensating six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 rape and slaying.
Gage County had filed a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to look at the verdict after a Federal appeals court upheld the award finding severe miscarriages of justice and wrongdoing by law enforcement. Monday the high court refused to intervene.
While $28MM sounds like a lot of money consider that this is for six people who served a combined 75 tears for a crime they did not commit. Consider that some of them had deep psychological issues when they were arrested and were forced by police to confess and name the others. There was substantial evidence to support allegations that Gage County officials actually conspired to convict the six people. That included evidence that investigators conducted unreported interrogations, ignored verifiable alibis and suggested that three of the six had repressed memories of the crime, then feeding them facts to make out confessions.
All six people were wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of Helen Wilson. DNA evidence cleared them in 2008. Wilson’s death has since been linked to a former Beatrice, Nebraska, resident who died in 1992. The County fought the civil case every step of the way until a jury awarded the Beatrice Six (as they are known) the money. One of the six, Joseph White, who was convicted just on the false confession of his co-defendants and spent 20 years in jail as an innocent man, did not live to see the decision. He was killed in 2011 in a coal refinery accident.
Maybe getting hit deeply in their pockets is the only way municipalities will face flaws and systemic problems in their criminal justice systems. Maybe this will send a message to other States and municipalities to look at cases pending in their own backyards. (You listening, Oklahoma?) Maybe once the evidence establishes that people were wrongfully convicted, municipalities will learn to work toward a fair and reasonable settlement instead of dragging the innocent into seven more years of litigation – all the way up to the Supreme Court. Maybe the farmers and homeowners whose taxes will rise steeply due to this verdict will ask their elected officials how all of this was allowed to happen and what steps are being taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
We can only hope.
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