Nebraska County Raises Property Taxes, Seeks State Bailout to Pay Wrongful Conviction Compensation

A Nebraska county has raised property taxes on its residents and asked the state legislature for a bailout to help pay a $28.1 million civil judgment it owes to six men and women wrongly convicted of rape and murder after having been threatened with the death penalty. The so-called Beatrice Six” (pictured) successfully sued Gage County for official misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. The large damages award exceeds Gage County's entire annual budget by $1 million. This year, Gage County Supervisors passed a property tax increase of 11.76 cents per $100 of valuation—the maximum increase allowed without putting the issue to voters. The tax increase is expected to generate about $3.8 million next year, but county leaders worry about its impact on residents and have announced plans to ask lawmakers and Governor Pete Ricketts for state funding or a loan to help pay the civil judgment. Greg Lauby, a former attorney who organized residents to seek solutions to the problem, said, “If we continue on the path we’re on with no assistance from the state, it will drive at least some farmers to bankruptcy. 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.”

Five of the Beatrice Six exonerees—James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, and Tom Winslow—agreed to plea bargains or pled no contest after prosecutors threatened them with the death penalty. A sixth, Joseph E. White, maintained his innocence, but was convicted at trial based on false testimony about his alleged involvement in the crime. The six were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008 after spending a combined 70 years in prison. The damages were awarded by a federal jury in 2016, just months before Nebraska voters passed a referendum to overturn the legislature's 2015 abolition of the death penalty and reinstate capital punishment. The county is responsible for the payment because prosecutors are immune from liability for wrongful convictions, and the sheriff involved in the case died in 2012. State Senator Ernie Chambers—one of the leaders of the death-penalty repeal efforts—said he opposes a state bailout. “This was strictly a county matter,” Chambers said. “They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it.” He added that, despite widespread coverage of the exonerations, Gage County voters overwhelmingly supported the reinstatement of the death penalty in 2016. “They haven’t learned a thing,” he said. Ultimately, as the McCook (Nebraska) Gazette wrote in an October 8, 2018 editorial, “[t]he Beatrice Six case and others like it spotlight the need to elect ethical and competent sheriffs and county attorneys and hold them accountable.”

(Grant Schulte, Nebraska county to seek state help paying $28.1M judgment, Associated Press, October 8, 2018; Editorial, Price of injustice comes home for county taxpayers, McCook Gazette, October 8, 2018.) See Innocence and Costs.