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Beatrice 6

The six people convicted and later cleared of killing Helen Wilson in 1985: (from top left) Joseph White, Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor, Deb Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

Lawmakers on the Revenue Committee on Tuesday unanimously advanced a proposal allowing counties to establish a sales tax in order to assist paying federal judgments.

The bill (LB472) by Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams was introduced as a way to help Gage County pay an estimated $31 million to six people wrongfully convicted for a 1985 rape and murder in Beatrice.

As introduced, the Qualified Judgment Payment Act would grant county boards, by a two-thirds vote, the ability to levy a half-percent sales tax to raise revenue to pay federal judgments.

Dorn prioritized LB472 this year, saying it could help Gage County pay the $28.1 million federal jury award, $2 million in attorneys' fees and $1 million in interest earlier than if the county had to rely upon property taxes alone.

The bill was backed by the Gage County Board of Supervisors, which raised the county property tax levy to the maximum 50 cents per $100 of valuation last fall in order to begin paying the judgment this year.

In a letter of support for Dorn's bill, the board said a sales tax "would spread the burden of this judgment among others rather than just owners of the real estate."

Chairman Erich Tiemann said while the board was generally not supportive of additional taxes, the county was "open to looking at every potential avenue," including adding a countywide sales tax.

But a citizens committee of Gage County residents said passage of LB472 would — with near certainty — mean they would be taxed twice in order to fulfill the federal jury's verdict.

"It's the Sheriff of Nottingham approach," said Greg Lauby of Wymore, referring to the tax-collecting antagonist in the tales of "Robin Hood." "If the peasants complain about a new tax being added to the old taxes, make them pay another tax."

Lauby and others in Gage County hope to raise $20,000 to hire a lobbyist to work on their behalf in adding federal judgments to the list of claims that could be filed under the State Tort Claims Act as outlined in another bill (LB474) introduced by Dorn this year.

There are 411 registered lobbyists at the Capitol, working on behalf of Nebraska's two largest cities, as well as smaller cities such as Hastings, Kearney and Lexington, on a variety of issues.

Lauby said Project Spare Gage wants to hire a lobbyist to educate state senators on one issue in particular.

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LB474 would essentially shift the onus for paying the judgment from the property taxpayers of Gage County to the state, which Project Spare Gage argues is ultimately responsible, according to Lauby.

"It's not just a selfish thing," he said. "The taxpayers in Gage County had nothing to do with the miscarriage of justice that occurred; the state did."

The 1989 cold-case investigation into the rape and murder of Helen Wilson was launched by a state-trained and certified deputy sheriff, Lauby said.

All suspects but Joseph White, who maintained his innocence, took plea deals in the case, some after being coerced into giving false confessions and others to avoid the death penalty — a sentence created by the Legislature, he noted.

And after overcoming years of legal opposition from the state, White was granted the right to have DNA evidence that was collected at the crime scene tested by the Nebraska Supreme Court in 2007.

The results of those tests cleared the six — White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathy Gonzalez and Debra Shelden — of any involvement in Wilson's 1985 murder.

After spending a combined 75 years in prison, the six sued Gage County in 2009. The county refused to settle out of court, and in 2016 a federal jury awarded the six a multimillion verdict.

The ongoing saga has left many in Gage County feeling bitter, Lauby said, as most of the decisions on how to proceed on the case were made behind closed doors between county officials and the team of lawyers they hired.

And while Gage County residents have had the chance to testify on several bills introduced on the county's behalf, organizers worry that their concerns about the long-term damage that could be done if the state doesn't step in and help could come to fruition.

"It may just be throwing good money after bad, but even if we had to pay $50,000 to get the state to pay $30 million? Duh," said Dennis Frerichs, one of the Project Spare Gage co-chairs. 

Lauby said hiring a lobbyist could bring attention to Gage County's cause and get the attention of state lawmakers, where their pleas otherwise may not be heard.

"For Gage County," he said, "this is truly a case that if we do not have a seat at the table, we will be on the menu."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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