Nebraska county owes $28m for wrongful convictions, says US supreme court

2019-03-05 20:35
Joseph White, left, one of six people wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Helen Wilson in 1985, is hugged by Rachel Morgan, daughter of Ada Joann Taylor. (Nati Harnik, AP, file)

Joseph White, left, one of six people wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Helen Wilson in 1985, is hugged by Rachel Morgan, daughter of Ada Joann Taylor. (Nati Harnik, AP, file)

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The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a rural Nebraska county's appeal of a $28m court judgment aimed at compensating six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 slaying.

The justices turned away Gage County's last-ditch effort to avoid the hefty judgment, after a federal appeals court in St Louis found the award was justified because of egregious law enforcement conduct.

READ: Wrongfully convicted men struggle to get compensation

In August, the county raised its local property tax levy as high as state law allows to pay off the debt - a move that could become a major drag on the local economy.

All six people were wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of Helen Wilson.

They spent more than 75 years combined in prison until DNA evidence cleared them in 2008.

Contradictory evidence

Wilson's death has since been linked to a former Beatrice, Nebraska, resident who died in 1992. Beatrice is about 161km southwest of Omaha.

Jeff Patterson, an attorney for four of the six who were wrongfully accused, said his clients "are just happy that things are moving along" with the case.

The lawsuit alleged that law enforcement officials recklessly strove to close the case despite contradictory evidence and coerced false confessions.

The three people who gave false confessions all had histories of psychological problems. One of the six, Joseph White, died in a workplace accident in Alabama in 2011.

Gage County expects to spend roughly $3.8m per year over eight years to cover the legal debt, attorney fees and interest, said Myron Dorn, a former county supervisor who helped approve the payment plan.

Because the county is mostly rural farmland, Dorn said roughly half of the total burden will fall on land-rich farmers whose incomes have plummeted because of low crop prices.

Some officials say the tax increase is the price residents should pay for a badly botched investigation that put innocent people in prison for a combined 75 years.

State Senator Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, has said residents "made their bed, now they have to sleep in it".

Dorn, who is now a state senator, introduced legislation this year that would allow the county to apply for state assistance to help pay off the judgment, but he isn't optimistic lawmakers will approve it given the state's budget troubles.

"The probability of that happening is probably pretty slim this year," he said.

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