OMAHA — The last time Ada JoAnn Taylor spoke publicly about the 1985 killing, she helped convict a man of first-degree murder.
Now, she’s hoping her words will help set him free.
In 1989, Taylor was a 26-year-old dairy worker from North Carolina who told a jury she watched two men rape Helen Wilson on a winter night four years earlier.
She told how she and five other drug users broke into the Beatrice widow’s apartment.
She said she watched Joseph White and Thomas Winslow take turns sexually assaulting the 68-year-old.
And she admitted she held a pillow over Wilson’s face.
“I didn’t want her to see the face that would haunt her,” Taylor testified.
“Why would the face haunt her?” the prosecutor asked.
“I know from previous experience that when you’re raped, the face can haunt you.”
Last week, attorneys representing White and Winslow said DNA tests have cleared them of the rape. They have asked that their cases be reconsidered and are waiting for a judge to decide whether to throw out their convictions.
If they are exonerated, they will be the first Nebraska prison inmates freed by DNA testing.
But the case is complicated, and the outcome remains unclear.
Before it’s decided, Taylor might have to take the witness stand again.
Last time, she said, she lied. This time, she said, she’ll tell the truth.
“I hope they understand I was a young mom, I was dumb and I did what I had to do to save my life,” Taylor told the Journal Star Tuesday, the first time she discussed the case publicly since 1989.
She was never in Helen Wilson’s apartment, she said during an interview at the minimum-security Omaha Community Corrections Center. Nor did she see White and Winslow rape Wilson.
The story about the pillow — not a shred of truth, she said.
Taylor said she lied because investigators and the prosecutor claimed they had evidence to prove her guilt. They forced her to make an agonizing choice — testify against the others and serve seven years in prison, or roll the dice at trial and face a possible life term.
Former Gage County Attorney Richard Smith prosecuted the case. Smith, now a private attorney in Beatrice, said Thursday he did not want to jeopardize new legal proceedings by discussing the 1989 trial.
But he scoffed at Taylor’s claim authorities fed her details so she could help them get convictions.
“The plea agreement was that she had to testify truthfully,” Smith said.
Taylor pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and has spent the past 18 years in prison. She has a year left before her mandatory release.
Some facts about the case are not in dispute, namely that Wilson was severely beaten, bound, raped and suffocated on Feb. 5 or 6, 1985. No arrests were made until 1989, after an investigator obtained new information from a confidential informant, according to stories published that year in the Journal Star.
An investigator then interviewed Winslow, who was being held on an unrelated assault charge, and got more information.
Arrests followed. So did interrogations. And not long after, some of the defendants began cutting deals.
Of the six people arrested in the case, Winslow and White were the only two who didn’t testify for the prosecution.
White maintained his innocence, was convicted by jury of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
DNA testing wasn’t an option at the original trial. Investigators did find three fingerprints, but they didn’t match the suspects, the victim or her family.
On the other hand, they found blood with “great similarities” to one of the suspects, who apparently was hit unintentionally by White.
Winslow said he didn’t remember participating in the crime. But after seeing the result of White’s trial, he pleaded no contest to aiding and abetting second-degree murder and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He remains incarcerated today.
Following her arrest, Taylor said she endured long sessions of questioning by authorities. At a point she can’t remember, she requested an attorney and was assigned one by the court.
Investigators told her they could prove she participated in the crime, she said. They told her they knew White and Winslow did the rape while she held the pillow that suffocated the victim.
“I knew I wasn’t guilty, but you get tired of being told things that after so long, you just started accepting it,” she said this week.
She said Smith, the county attorney, participated in the interrogations and urged her to take the plea agreement, saying he would recommend a 15-year sentence. With good time, she could be free in seven years.
Her court-appointed lawyer said he thought he could win her acquittal, but he also advised that 15 years in prison for second-degree murder was a good deal, Taylor said.
Finally, she said, she agreed to the plea bargain after Smith offered it a fourth time.
“I was coerced. I should have never went with what the investigators or the county attorney wanted said. I should have fought it. I hate the fact that I didn’t fight it.”
She knows some people won’t believe her when she says she’s telling the truth now.
Burdette Searcey of Beatrice would likely fall into that category.
In 1989, when he was with the Gage County Sheriff’s Department, he revived the investigation into the Wilson murder.
Searcey declined to comment when told about Taylor recanting her testimony, except to say, “the evidence will prove out as it did before.”
Smith, the former county attorney, said he spoke with Taylor before she pleaded guilty, but only when her attorney was in the room. He also opted not to debate the facts of the case.
“I never tried cases in the press and I’m not going to start doing that now,” he said.
Attorneys for White and Winslow interviewed Taylor as they worked to get court-ordered DNA testing for their clients. She told them she gave false trial testimony before DNA tests proved the men were not the rapists, said Jerry Soucie, an attorney with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy.
When asked to describe her testimony of 19 years ago, Taylor said she couldn’t remember details. Nor could she offer an alibi for her whereabouts on the night of Feb. 5, 1985.
At that time in her life, she said, she spent her days drunk on Jack Daniel’s and her nights high on cocaine, she said. She was a violent drunk, she admitted, getting into frequent bar fights. But she insisted she would have remembered if she participated in a murder.
Taylor said she quit drugs and alcohol after leaving Nebraska for North Carolina in 1985. She has earned a GED and completed courses at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, and she plans to take classes at Bellevue University, she said. She attends church every Sunday, she said, and she has developed a relationship with a daughter she lost because of her addictions.
She wants to help the men she lied about, she said. It’s not about reducing her sentence, since she’s almost completed it.
If anything, recanting her testimony puts her at risk of a perjury charge, although she doesn’t think that will happen.
She would like to clear her name, she said. She wants to work with troubled children.
She said she feels badly for the family of Helen Wilson if she’s robbing them of emotional closure. Yet she feels even worse that her testimony helped put White and Winslow in prison.
She hopes they win their freedom soon.
“I didn’t think it through (in 1989),” she said. “I didn’t think what was going to happen to them and I really should not have been that cold-hearted.”