Nebraska's governor, attorney general and secretary of state are fighting subpoenas to testify in a federal civil case about pardons given to five of the so-called Beatrice Six.
In 2008, DNA testing implicated another man for the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson in Beatrice.
But by then, Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden had served a combined 87 years in prison for it.
White, the only one of the six who maintained his innocence, was convicted at trial but the conviction was overturned after the new DNA evidence emerged and the other five were pardoned. White, Winslow and Taylor were released from prison. The other three already had completed their sentences.
They sued in U.S. District Court, saying investigators with the Gage County Sheriff's Office led a reckless investigation that violated their rights with fabricated and coerced evidence to get convictions. White since has died.
Last week, attorneys for the six filed notices to depose Gov. Dave Heineman, Attorney General Jon Bruning and Secretary of State John Gale, who together sit as the Nebraska Board of Pardons.
The attorneys say the depositions are necessary "because defendants (the Gage County officials) refused to admit that plaintiffs are actually innocent of the rape and murder of Helen Wilson."
It's the county officials' position that the pardons granted to Dean, Gonzalez, Winslow, Taylor and Sheldon were to "forgive," not reflect recognition of their innocence.
But in 2009, Corey O'Brien of Bruning's office said the five seeking pardons were innocent.
"Not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond all doubt," said O'Brien, who led a task force that re-investigated Wilson's murder and led to the pardons.
In a motion filed Monday, their attorney, Maren Chaloupka of Scottsbluff, said the position of Gage County and the investigators makes deposing members of the Pardons Board a must.
She said a 60-day continuance is necessary "because of defendants' refusal to simply admit that plaintiffs were uninvolved in the rape and murder of Helen Wilson, notwithstanding monumental evidence to the contrary -- and notwithstanding that they are the only people in the state of Nebraska (and presumably anywhere else) that continue to insist that plaintiffs were involved in Ms. Wilson's murder."
The depositions are set for Nov. 12, unless a judge in the case quashes the subpoenas, a move sought Friday by an attorney for the state.
Jen Rae Wang, the governor's communications director, referred questions to the Attorney General's Office. Shannon Kingery, a spokeswoman there, declined to comment.
In a brief in support of the motion to quash, Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Caldwell said their involvement in the pardons process is not unlike the fact-finding and conclusory functions exercised by courts and that they should be granted immunity from being required to testify in the civil proceeding related to their decision.
"Here the court's protection is warranted to prevent these elected officials from shouldering such an undue burden and having to testify in a deposition setting," Caldwell wrote.
A federal judge hasn't yet ruled on the motions, but it seems likely the questions will delay a jury trial, which has been set to start Jan. 6.
In separate cases filed in state court, Nebraska settled with White and Taylor for $500,000, the maximum allowed, for wrongful conviction. Dean got $300,000; Gonzalez, $350,000; and Winslow $180,000. Shelden’s case is pending.