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Nebraska County Owes $28.1 Million After Wrongfully Imprisoning Six People For Murder

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In 1989, six people in Beatrice, Neb., were sent to prison for a rape and murder they didn't commit. The so-called Beatrice Six were eventually exonerated based on DNA evidence. Now the county that prosecuted them owes them $28.1 million after the Supreme Court opted to let a lower court's ruling stand. Earlier, Chris Dunker of the Lincoln Journal Star told us how the original case was built on false confessions, that the suspects were convinced they were repressing traumatic memories of the rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson.

CHRIS DUNKER: A private investigator hired by the Wilson family, named Burt Searcey, eventually got hired by the Gage County Sheriff's Office. Built this case, targeted some people that were kind of on the fringes of society. Five of the six who originally claimed they had nothing to do with it, eventually, during interrogations, were convinced that they were there. There was a police psychologist named Wayne Price, who also treated these folks. And he had told a couple of them that if they just went to sleep that their dreams would help them remember what had gone wrong there. And two of them eventually came back and said, yeah, now I remember what happened. You know, I dreamed it last night, and I can see the murder and these people were all there.

Joseph White was the only one who maintained his innocence through the whole thing. He willingly gave some hair, and blood and saliva samples to cops. All of this evidence, physical evidence from the case, kind of sat in a basement. And in 2008, he won the right to have this evidence tested, and it showed that this DNA that they collected at the scene did not belong to him, nor did it belong to any of the other five people.

CORNISH: And Joseph White died in 2011. Right?

DUNKER: Correct.

CORNISH: But this lawsuit continues. What's the argument behind it?

DUNKER: Yeah. It was against the Gage County Sheriff's Office, particularly Burt Searcey and Wayne Price, for leading an investigation that they said shocked the conscience. These people were coerced into giving false confessions against one another. There was gaps in these interview tapes when before the tape shut off, these folks were saying, you know, I can't remember anything about this. And when they'd come back, all of a sudden, they'd remembered this murder as it supposedly happened in pretty clear detail. So they came back later and said that Searcey and Price had kind of been feeding them details related to how the murder happened and violated their civil rights.

CORNISH: Now that the Supreme Court has let a lower court's decision stand, Gage County owes the plaintiffs more than $28 million, right?

DUNKER: Correct.

CORNISH: This is a county that only has 22,000 residents. So how are they going to pay for this?

DUNKER: Counties are limited in Nebraska in how they can raise revenue. The only way that they can do it is through a property tax. That is falling primarily on farmers and large landowners in the county, who make up a minority of the county's population - only about 15 percent of the county's population - but they own 75 percent of the taxable land.

CORNISH: How are people in the county reacting to this?

DUNKER: They're pretty mad. A couple of farmers from Gage County came to testify to the legislature that, you know, they had nothing to do with the investigation. They just, you know, were farmers going about their business. One man said that the additional tax hike was going to add $10,000 in property taxes to his bill each year. And this is expected to last for, you know, close to a decade. So we're looking at a hundred-thousand dollars in added taxes that that man might have to pay.

I've talked to folks that, you know, say that they were really young when this whole thing happened. They weren't able to vote for the sheriff, or any of the county supervisors or anybody like that that are now having to pay this judgment even though they knew next to nothing about it.

CORNISH: Finally, what does this mean for these people who were exonerated?

DUNKER: Their attorneys have said that they're not viewing any of this as a victory lap. My colleague Lori Pilger talked to Joseph White's mother earlier this week, Lois. And she said that she didn't expect to see any of this money. Essentially, that her main objective in the whole thing was to see her son's name cleared and that the folks that put him there were held up to the light for the world to see.

CORNISH: Chris Dunker is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

DUNKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.