A year and a half after a jury in Lincoln said Gage County and two sheriff’s deputies owed six people $28.1 million for time they spent in prison for another man’s crime, an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel pelted the attorneys with questions.
The three judges will decide whether the verdict should stand or if the county should get a new trial, as it’s seeking, in the case that sought to hold deputies responsible.
Joseph White, Thomas Winslow and Ada JoAnn Taylor each spent nearly 20 years in prison before, in 2008, DNA testing confirmed Bruce Allen Smith, a lone drifter who by then had died in prison in Oklahoma, was to blame for Helen Wilson’s brutal rape and murder in her Beatrice apartment in 1985.
James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden each had served around five years in prison.
It is among the most noteworthy false confession cases in the country.
Attorneys for the six say the lead investigator, Deputy Burt Searcey, recklessly fed details of the crime scene to co-defendants, who feared facing the death penalty.
And they say a reserve deputy, Dr. Wayne Price, who worked with mentally fragile co-defendants, told at least two that details of the crime could come back to them in dreams.
The six sued, saying the investigation had been so shockingly reckless that it violated their constitutional rights.
Last year, a jury in U.S. District Court in Lincoln agreed and awarded them $28.1 million.
In court Thursday, the complicated verdict, which included 60 questions, was under the microscope.
"This is a confusing set of verdicts,” Judge Duane Benton said.
Jurors found Gage County liable for the reckless investigation, as well as Searcey, who since has retired, and Price.
But the jury also found there had been no conspiracy and said then-Gage County Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, who since has died, wasn’t liable for anything.
In order to find the county responsible, by law, the jury had to find evidence of a conspiracy or that it came under the direction of a county policymaker.
"Tell us how we reconcile that,” Benton asked Jeff Patterson, an attorney for the six.
Patterson said the jury was very careful in deciding the 60 questions before it. He said he believes they determined that DeWitt’s conduct was secondary.
“The real cause of this was the conduct of the investigators,” he said.
The county was liable because the sheriff had directed, authorized and accepted the conduct, even having read reports that didn’t match up with the crime scene evidence, Patterson said.
“At any point in time he could’ve done exactly what the Beatrice police did and say none of this is adding up,” he argued.
Attorney Melanie Whittamore-Mantzios, who represents Gage County, argued that the judges must narrow their path to what the jury found, which included the absence of a conspiracy.
“Would negligence be enough?” Benton asked her.
No, she argued; neither was it enough that he was reading reports.
DeWitt had to understand that a constitutional violation was taking place, Whittamore-Mantzios said.
“Where was the specific thing they did that was reckless?” she asked, adding there was no indication Searcey or Price hid any evidence.
Patterson countered the argument.
“Any reasonable officer in 1989 would know you cannot frame six innocent individuals for murder. And that’s exactly what we’ve got here,” he said.
Patterson said the information that came from dreams bore no semblance of the facts. The deputies just ignored it and kept pressing forward to get their convictions, he said.
They had gathered unreliable and false evidence recklessly without heed or concern in a death penalty case, Patterson argued.
On rebuttal, Patrick O’Brien, another of Gage County’s attorneys, got the last word, saying Patterson didn’t say what in particular DeWitt did to act as a policymaker, which would make the county liable.
“The fact that there was no conspiracy makes a county verdict clearly inappropriate,” he argued.
The judges — Benton, Bobby Shepherd and Jane Kelly — took the case under advisement and could rule sometime in the next six to eight weeks.
If it were sent back for a retrial it would be for the third time. The first ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked.
Outside the courtroom after arguments, current County Sheriff Millard Gustafson said he never had anything to do with the case and keeps his opinions about it to himself.
Regardless, he and the rest of Gage County's property owners are nervous about what happens if the $28.1 million verdict stands.
“I just can’t see how we’d ever be able to afford that. That’s a concern of everybody,” Gustafson said.
He said it would be devastating to the county and would effect how they do business.
“I hate it for everybody’s sake," Gustafson said, including for the Beatrice 6: ”It’s just bad for everybody."
It’s not often that a baby shower doubles as a 30th anniversary party.
In 1987, Mother-to-Mother opened its doors in Beatrice with the aim of giving new moms a place to make friends, as well as offer encouragement and support to one another through the good times and the bad. Thirty years later, they’re still working toward the same goal, but they’ve added a few new challenges to the mix.
Mother-to-Mother—located inside the Burwood Books store at Court and Fifth streets in Beatrice—is throwing a baby shower to celebrate three decades of serving moms. There will be cake, baby shower games and punch or coffee. Like at any baby shower, gifts would be appreciated.
The organization is asking for diapers, baby wipes and formula to be donated to help local moms in need, said Mother-to-Mother Board President Kathy Thimm.
Thimm has been with the organization since the beginning.
“Our main mission is still the same, has always been, to support young mothers and mothers with limited resources,” she said. “To support them with friendship and emotional support and any way that we can support them.”
The organization has changed a lot over the years, she said, and they’ve tried to change to meet the needs of mothers in the community.
The group got its start in a small office inside the family resource center at Southeast Community College before moving downtown. Inside what was once the old Burwood Hotel, across from Clabaugh’s Pharmacy, they set up shop in the lobby and opened up a bookstore they called Burwood Books.
In 2012, they moved to their current location—which previously held a Hallmark store—and reopened Burwood Books.
“After we moved here, we didn't think we could change the name,” Thimm said. “I think it's a great name.”
Mother-to-Mother offers several weekly and monthly activities for moms and their kids. On Tuesday mornings, the group meets at the Beatrice YMCA for a playdate activity where the kids can play inside the gym. On Wednesday mornings, the shop hosts a story time where kids can listen to stories while their moms can take a break.
It’s a great place to meet new people, said Kellie Kovar, who’s been bringing her son, Alex, to story time at Burwood Books since he was about two months old. She was a new mom and wasn’t quite sure how to go about meeting other moms until she came across the bookstore.
“There's a different kind of connection between the moms because it's a place where you can really just come together and chat, but I've met some of my really good friends here,” Kovar said. “It gave me a chance to not only introduce my son to a lot of things, but me as well.”
Fellow Mother-to-Mother member Hillary Rose is a stay-at-home mom and was new in town when she discovered Burwood. She and her husband moved from the Omaha area when he got a job nearby, she said, and finding a place that offered activities for her daughter and a chance at adult conversation was a great relief.
“You get a little bit of freedom, you get a little breather,” she said. “And everyone's so nice. I don't have to brew my own pot of coffee if I don't want to.”
Story time sessions typically draw in around 10 to 25 kids and they can come from all around, said Marjorie Brubaker, who works in the bookshop.
“We have one mother who brings her five kids from Kansas,” Brubaker said. “She homeschools, and this is an outing for them.”
Mother-to-Mother tries to offer new and entertaining experiences for moms and their children, she said, like when they go to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo or to the Children’s Museum. The organization has hosted moms who have never been to a zoo before, Brubaker said, and some of them haven't been outside of Beatrice in several years.
There are monthly outings just for moms as well, she said. Sometimes, they go out to Valentino’s or another local restaurant so they have a chance to chat.
Coordinator Diane Courtney said that introducing members to resources available within the community is an important part of Mother-to-Mother's mission.
“We really pick as many community spots to go as we can,” she said. “We try to get people familiar with what's here in town.”
In the last couple of years, Thimm said, Mother-To-Mother has started up what it calls its emergency diaper bank. Once a month, mothers who need it can come and get diapers, baby wipes and formula from the group. The baby shower, she said, is an attempt to restock the diaper bank.
While they’re looking for all sizes, the most popular diapers tend to be the larger ones in sizes four, five and six.
In October, not counting the mothers involved in their playdates, story times or outings, Mother-To-Mother helped 45 moms, Thimm said, and the need is growing.
“The community has been very generous about donating to this organization,” Thimm said. “A lot of people have donated their baby clothes, so we give those to moms as well. So, the sizes are from newborn to about seven or eight. We have both boys' and girls' clothes.”
Mother-to-Mother is also looking for volunteers, she said, which could help them to extend their hours at the shop.
According to Thimm, the group has been supported by the United Way for many years. Without the financial contributions from the United Way and from area residents, as well as physical donations, Mother-to-Mother wouldn’t be where it is today, she said.
Jodi Hasse is a newcomer at Mother-to-Mother’s events. She started bringing her grandsons, 4-year-old Chance Ward and 16-month-old Jasper Kistener, to story time. In about a month, she’s already noticed a change.
Chance is in preschool, and he’s had some time to learn how to socialize with other kids, Hasse said, but Jasper is just learning how to play and interact.
“Jasper doesn't have anybody little, his age, until we started coming here,” she said. “It's taken a few weeks, but he's getting now where he will actually say 'hi' to the little people. That's really encouraging.”
The baby shower at Burwood Books will be open on Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. for a sack sale, where you can fill a plastic bag full of books for $6 and a larger brown paper bag for $10.
Beatrice Fire and Rescue responded to a house fire on west Court Street Thursday morning after flames were spotted by neighbors.
No one was home at the time of the fire, located near the Casey’s General Store on West Court, and there were no injuries reported.
One lane was shut down in the eastbound direction of Court Street to allow Beatrice Fire and Rescue vehicles to set up in front of the house.
When firefighters arrived on scene, Fire Chief Brian Daake said there was smoke coming out of the roof attic vents. The firefighters entered the home and found a fire in the back bedroom and extinguished it.
Smoke could still be seen billowing from the roof vents at mid-morning and firefighters climbed to the roof to peel away siding and extinguish hot spots.
Emergency crews were waiting for the state fire marshal’s investigator to arrive before leaving the scene.
“It's not suspicious,” Daake said. “It's just one of those things that we do to make sure we get the proper cause of the fire is determined.”
A Beatrice woman convicted of selling methamphetamine to a confidential informant working with police will be sentenced in January.
Amber D. Pedersen, 28, pleaded guilty to a charge of distributing methamphetamine in one case, and admitted to violating probation in another, meaning she will be resentenced for two charges of possession of a controlled substance.
She appeared in Gage County District Court Thursday, where Judge Julie Smith set sentencing in both cases for Jan. 4.
In the most recent case, Pedersen is charged with distribution of methamphetamine following an investigation dating back to April 2016.
A Nebraska State Patrol confidential informant was provided with $100 in undercover drug funds. The funds were used to purchase methamphetamine from Pedersen.
In the other case, she was previously sentenced to 36 months probation for two possession charges, one of which was reduced from a distribution charge as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors.
When she was sentenced to probation in April, District Court Judge Rick Schreiner said Pedersen had failed to meet with probation officers in the past, which wasn’t reassuring that she would successfully complete a term of probation.
The possession charges were each class 4 felonies, and Schreiner said the legislature has determined that class 4 felonies should come with a presumption of probation, unless certain stipulations are met.
She was arrested last September in that case, following an investigation by Beatrice police where confidential informants told officers she was selling methamphetamine.
Officers approached her as she was exiting her vehicle at the Gage County Courthouse, and she said she had something on her.
Court documents state Pedersen pulled two baggies out of her bra which contained a total of 8.4 grams of methamphetamine.
Syringes, scales, cash and more drugs were found inside the vehicle.