Policy: Law

5 of exonerated inmates known as 'Beatrice 6' testify in trial

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Associated Press,Nebraska,Law

LINCOLN, Neb. — Five of the six people wrongly convicted and imprisoned for the 1985 slaying of a Beatrice woman have testified in court about the struggles they said they endured in prison — including sexual assault in some cases — for a crime they didn't commit.

Debra Shelden, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Ada JoAnn Taylor and Thomas Winslow all testified Thursday and Friday in federal court as part of their lawsuits against Gage County and various law enforcement officials, the Lincoln Journal Star reported Saturday. The sixth person wrongly convicted, Joseph White, died in 2011 in a work-related accident in Alabama. His estate is continuing his lawsuit.

The six — known as the Beatrice Six — spent a combined 77 years in custody before DNA testing exonerated them in 2008. The tests pointed authorities to a man who died in 1992.

Investigators originally described a gruesome scene in which 68-year-old Helen Wilson was held down and raped in front of a group of people. Her hands were bound, and she died of suffocation.

But after the DNA tests, officials said the crime was committed by one man, Bruce Allen Smith, who grew up in Beatrice, returned to town days before the slaying and then quickly went back to Oklahoma. He died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 30.

Winslow testified Friday that life in prison wasn't easy, the newspaper reported. Within two weeks, he said, he'd been assaulted, and a string of sexual assaults followed. He said other inmates targeted him because he had been convicted of rape and murder.

He was released in 2008 after serving nearly 20 years.

Gonzalez testified that a deputy brought people in late at night to sneak a look at the accused in their cells. She also said the prosecutor at the time confirmed her assertion that she wasn't at the scene of the crime, but smirked and accepted her no contest plea to second-degree murder anyway.

"They just got rid of us like dirty Kleenex," Gonzalez said.

All five testified that the investigators threatened them with the death penalty and coerced confessions by convincing some of them that they had repressed memories of the crime.

Later Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf dismissed the case against Gage County and other defendants, but said the case could go forward against Deputy Burdette Searcey, part-time Deputy Wayne Price and the estate of then-Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, all parties involved in the investigation.

The trial is set to resume Tuesday.

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