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HBO docuseries explores 'Beatrice 6' convictions, exonerations

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A Scottsbluff attorney will be among those telling the story of six people wrongfully convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of a Beatrice woman in an HBO docuseries that was set to premiere Monday evening.

Maren Chaloupka and co-counsel Jeff Patterson represented six defendants commonly known as the “Beatrice 6”: Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez. The six people were initially convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in Beatrice. In 2008, DNA evidence implicated Bruce Allen Smith, an original suspect in the murder who died in 1992. White was exonerated in court and the other five defendants were pardoned.

HBO docuseries explores 'Beatrice 6' convictions, exonerations

"Mind Over Murder" was set to debut on Monday.

 

Together, the three men and three women spent a combined 75 years in prison in Wilson’s death and later sued Gage County, winning a federal jury trial in 2016. It was the culmination of two decades of White fighting to prove his innocence.

Chaloupka, and her client, Debra Shelden, are among those interviewed as part of the miniseries, “Mind over Murder,” that documents the case. It’s a case that is well-known to most Nebraskans, with the chilling tale of wrongful conviction and the $28 million judgment that taxpayers are helping pay.

Though films, docuseries and television shows in the “true crime” genre have continued to increase in popularity through the years, Patterson, Chaloupka and the defendants in the case have been reluctant to be involved in such projects until being approached by director Nanfu Wang. Wang produced the HBO Original six-part documentary series set for broadcast Mondays at 9 p.m. The episodes will post to HBO's streaming platform on Tuesdays.

“After the verdict (in 2016), we started getting approached by different kinds of journalists, both print and documentarians, who wanted to make film or TV productions about it. We said no to almost all of them,” Chaloupka said.

She explained that the case is very complex, with the federal trial taking more than a month to present and more than 400 documents among the exhibits.

She said that the attorneys were very protective of their clients, and not interested in ventures that would exploit their stories for commercialism. They wanted to maintain the integrity of the truth.

“The reason our clients spent a combined 77 years in prison was because people were not interested in the truth,” she said. “And because they were not interested in the truth, our clients suffered terribly. They’re never going to recover from that damage.”

In working with a journalist from The New Yorker, they became associated with Wang.

“She asked us to look at some of the other work she had done. ... And when we watched some of her other films, we were impressed that she had the emotional capacity to carry a complicated, factually and emotionally accurate story.”

HBO docuseries explores 'Beatrice Six' convictions

Beatrice Community Players company members perform in Gage County. Chaloupka said the production is the closest that some of the community's residents have gotten to knowing the details of the mishandled case.

For more than a decade, Chaloupka has been a part of the case in representing Shelden, and in an initial trailer for the docuseries, it’s evident that Shelden still struggles with the aftermath of the case. Some of the most emotional pieces of the trailer come from Shelden.

The federal jury concluded that Gage County Deputy Burt Searcey, who led the cold-case investigation, and Deputy Wayne Price, who also worked as a psychologist, had manufactured evidence or engaged in a reckless investigation that violated the rights of the six defendants.

In just one example of the emotional upheaval, Chaloupka shared how Price, who claimed to be treating the defendants during the investigation to recover memories, told Shelden – a woman with an IQ in the 70s that made her susceptible to suggestion and also suffering from schizoaffective disorder – to go back to her jail cell and “‘the truth’ would come to her in a dream.”

Shelden did, and was subsequently convinced that she and another woman had been at the scene of the crime. Deputies based her recounting of the dream as its cause for arresting Kathy Gonzalez in the case. Statements or “therapy” provided by Price is reported to be tied to more than one false confession among the Beatrice 6.

Each of the defendants had very unique experiences, Chaloupka said, as a result of egregious law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct.

“Imagine, you or me being prosecuted for murder because someone had a dream that you were there,” she said, adding, “You can’t make this s— up.”

Without the persistence of White, the six defendants may never have been cleared and some would still be in prison.

Wang doesn’t just take the audience through the stories of the Beatrice 6, but also the Wilson family and the Beatrice community. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that many of the family members continue to believe that the six cleared defendants are guilty or that some in the Beatrice community would rather not discuss the case. 

Family members of Wilson also live in the Scottsbluff area and were among the children and grandchildren Wang interviewed, which Chaloupka credited as part of the journalistic process that made her supportive and confident in Wang’s ability to tell the story. The long-lasting effects of the case are felt on both sides, she said. She told the Star-Herald she can understand the Wilson family’s grief, particularly in experiencing the shock and grief of having their mother and grandmother taken in such a horrific way, the need for closure as the case remained unsolved, and then the rollercoaster of events as they believed in deputies they thought to be heroes for solving the case.

“What they have been through is shocking and confusing, and the real killer was never brought to justice,” she said. “He died without answering for his crime. ... I just am so sad for what they’ve been through.”

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