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."