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Ricketts signs bill to help pay Beatrice 6 judgment

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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.

Gov. Pete Ricketts on Tuesday signed a bill to help Gage County pay six people wrongly convicted of a 1985 murder, but said he had concerns over the precedent set by doing so.

The bill (LB103) from Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams would provide $2 million in state funds to Gage County in each of the next two years to pay a $28.1 million federal court judgment awarded to the so-called Beatrice 6.

The six -- Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden -- spent a combined 75 years in prison for the murder of Helen Wilson, but were later exonerated after DNA evidence showed they were not involved in the crime.

They sued Gage County in 2009 for violating their civil rights, and in 2016, a federal jury awarded the massive judgment totaling more than three times the county's annual budget, forcing county officials to hike property taxes and implement a sales tax.

Dorn brought LB103 this year to expedite payment to the six -- the county has paid roughly half of the judgment so far -- and help reduce the property tax burden on Gage County.

State lawmakers passed the bill on final reading on a 44-3 vote.

Ricketts said the events leading to the introduction of LB103 were "tragic," including the violation of the six's civil rights, the missteps by county officials that created a gap in liability insurance coverage, and the need for residents of Gage County to pay "extremely large property taxes" to pay the judgment.

"LB103 is the second bill to be passed by the Nebraska Legislature within two years that addresses the poor decisions made by prior Gage County Board of Supervisors," Ricketts wrote, "and it is another iteration of a prior legislative proposal that would have had State of Nebraska taxpayers from all counties pay for the egregious errors made by Gage County elected officials to satisfy the Beatrice Six court judgment."

But, despite his objections, Ricketts said he chose to sign the bill "for one reason."

"The unusual year we have just withstood during the pandemic caused a financial hardship for many Nebraskans, including those in Gage County," he said. "I consider the funding provided by LB103 as a one-time payment in light of this extreme hardship circumstance."

Dorn said he was pleased Ricketts signed the bill, and said with the state's assistance, the six will receive their money one year sooner than anticipated.

"I think this is fantastic," he said. "We'll get them their money quicker, which has been a goal of mine. And it definitely helps the people of Gage County."

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

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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