Nebraska county to seek state help paying $28.1M judgment

Published: Oct. 7, 2018 at 2:39 PM CDT
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Residents of a small Nebraska county that owes $28.1 million to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 rape and murder will seek a bailout from the state now that their appeals are nearly exhausted, but some lawmakers aren't interested in helping them avoid a big property tax increase.

Community leaders in Gage County plan to ask lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts for state funding or a loan to help pay the civil judgment owed to the former inmates, known as the Beatrice Six. They served a combined 70 years in prison for the slaying of 68-year-old Helen Wilson before being released a decade ago.

Gage County Supervisors voted last month to raise the county's property tax levy by 11.76 cents per $100 of valuation, the highest they can go without submitting the issue to voters. The higher tax will generate about $3.8 million next year.

For the owner of a $150,000 home, the increase amounts to an extra $177 in taxes annually. Land-rich farmers who have already seen their property taxes soar would pay substantially more at a time when low grain prices have squeezed their margins.

"If we continue on the path we're on with no assistance from the state, it will drive at least some farmers to bankruptcy," said Greg Lauby, a former attorney from Wymore who helped organize a group of residents to look for a solution. "We have homeowners who are struggling to put food on their table and clothe their children, and that's an amount that will make a difference."

The former inmates successfully sued Gage County after DNA evidence exonerated them in 2008, and a federal appeals court upheld the judgment in June and refused to postpone it for further appeals. That left county officials with few options other than a longshot request for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case or an uphill legal fight with their former insurer.

Jurors in the lawsuit found that some members of the group were coerced into false confessions by authorities, who convinced them they had repressed memories of the murder.

Some also struggled with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities and agreed to plea deals after investigators told them they might face the death penalty. Only one of the six, Joseph White, maintained his innocence and went to trial, but he was convicted based largely on the testimony of those who had struck plea deals in exchange for lesser charges and lighter sentences.

Sen. Roy Baker, whose district includes Gage County, introduced two bills last year that sought to address the problem - one that would have let the county seek direct state reimbursement and another that would allow it to get a low-interest state loan.

Neither bill advanced, in part because of their cost and the state's tax revenue shortfall. Baker, who isn't seeking re-election, said he asked to have the bills held in committee until the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the case. By the time the appeals court ruled, lawmakers had adjourned for the year.

Baker said he doesn't think the reimbursement bill is likely to pass, but the one that would allow Gage County to borrow money has "a sporting chance."

He said he's concerned the higher property tax will make voters less likely to approve other measures, such as bond issues to build new schools.

Despite the push, any attempt to collect money from the state is likely to face opposition from some lawmakers who have criticized how local officials handled the case and the impact it had on those wrongfully convicted.

"This was strictly a county matter," said Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha. "They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it."

Chambers noted that the Beatrice Six defendants' false confessions came after they were threatened with the death penalty, yet Gage County voters overwhelmingly supported a 2016 ballot measure to reinstate capital punishment after the Legislature repealed it.

"They haven't learned a thing," Chambers said.

A spokesman for Ricketts did not answer emailed questions about whether the governor would support state assistance for Gage County but said in a statement that the administration "will continue to talk with the county about their plans." Ricketts has made property taxes a top issue in his re-election campaign.

Gage County Supervisor Myron Dorn said county officials approved the tax increase because if they didn't, attorneys for the Beatrice Six would have asked a federal judge to order it.

Dorn, who is running for Baker's seat in the Legislature, said the county board is "aggressively looking at other options" to pay the debt, but hasn't come up with concrete solutions. He said that, if elected, he'll introduce a bill next year that would allow for state assistance.

"It would definitely help relieve some of the burden," Dorn said.

Many residents are frustrated because they didn't live in the county or weren't born when the six were convicted, said Don Schuller, a farmer who is also running for Baker's seat.

Schuller said the county sheriff and attorney at the time frequently ran unopposed, so there was little voters could have done. Former Sheriff Jerry DeWitt died in 2012, and Richard Smith, the former county attorney who chose not to run DNA testing in the case, was not a defendant in the lawsuit because prosecutors are immune from liability.

Schuller said he'll continue to press the issue with lawmakers and Ricketts if elected.

"We certainly have to try," he said. "Maybe I'm just being optimistic, but I think there's a chance."

The county's predicament is similar to smaller-scale financial problems faced by southeast Nebraska's Richardson County more than two decades ago, said Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

Lawmakers and then-Gov. Ben Nelson approved $200,000 in emergency state assistance in 1996 to help the small county repay bank loans to cover the cost of two high-profile murder trials and major flood damage from a few years earlier. County officials at the time spent more than $1 million on the two trials.

"These are not everyday occurrences," Dix said. In Gage County, "there's never been anything like this before."