LINCOLN — This week’s federal appeals court decision against Gage County in the Beatrice Six case made what was a possible judgment of $28 million look suddenly more probable.
Elected officials have scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday to discuss options for getting a legal reversal of the damages awarded to six people wrongfully convicted of murder. But lawyers familiar with the federal courts have said the county faces remote chances of winning an appeal at this stage.
So officials in Gage County soon may be faced with choosing a path to pay a judgment that exceeds the county’s total annual budget by roughly $1 million.
Among the possibilities:
- Raise the county’s property tax levy to the maximum allowed by law, which could generate more than $3 million annually, based on estimates.
- Convince the Nebraska Legislature to pass a law allowing wrongfully convicted people to submit claims for payment by the state.
- Declare bankruptcy, a step never before taken by a county government in Nebraska.
On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the damages for Joseph E. White, Kathleen Gonzalez, Tom Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Ada JoAnn Taylor. The six collectively served more than 70 years in prison for the 1985 homicide of Helen Wilson of Beatrice.
Scottsbluff attorney Maren Chaloupka said Tuesday that her client, Debra Shelden, and the other members of the so-called Beatrice Six were willing to settle the lawsuit several years ago for $15 million. The Gage County Board declined, then lost a bigger judgment following the 2016 jury trial.
“There can be no more avoiding accountability for this travesty of justice,” she said.
Myron Dorn, chairman of the County Board, said Tuesday that officials are trying to do what’s best for the almost 22,000 residents they represent. None of the options provides a simple solution, he added.
He said he sometimes hears people say the six deserve to collect millions of dollars for their years of lost freedom. But when he asks if they will help pay the bill, he said, the conversation ends.
“Gage County will gladly accept payment from anybody,” he said. “But when you’re basing it on your pocketbook, sometimes, it looks a little different.”
Attorney Jeff Patterson of Lincoln, a member of the legal team that represented four of the wrongfully convicted, said the most direct way for the county to pay the judgment involves raising taxes and using the additional revenue to secure bonds or some other source of financing.
“In my view, what the law requires is for them to take immediate action to pay our clients,” he said.
Dorn said he and his fellow board members have had discussions on the possibility of obtaining bonds to pay the $28 million. But they have been told informally by a bond company representative that doing so wouldn’t be allowed under the law.
The County Board also has retained bankruptcy lawyers, although Dorn said it was too early to judge how likely an option that would be. Patterson said he thinks it would be a mistake for the county to pursue bankruptcy because it could speed the repayment of any existing debts and possibly hurt the county’s bond rating in the future.
The county has retained two other lawyers to pursue payment of at least part of the damages from the county’s insurance carriers. Key hearings in those lawsuits are scheduled in coming weeks.
Several board members also have had informal discussions with Gov. Pete Ricketts about the possibility of obtaining state assistance. Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman, said Ricketts continues to monitor the case and maintain lines of communication with the local officials.
Don Schuller, a Wymore-area farmer and businessman, has organized meetings of Gage County taxpayers to brainstorm plans to address payment of the jury award. Like others, he argued that the state shares responsibility with the county because the six were prosecuted under state criminal statutes and held in state prisons.
Schuller worries that if the county has to shoulder the entire judgment and raise taxes to pay it off, it could prompt residents to move out and discourage businesses from locating in the county.
“This is something that could happen to any county in the state,” he said. “I don’t know how the state can just wash its hands here.”
Schuller and Dorn are candidates to represent Gage County in the Legislature. The lawmaker one of them will succeed introduced a bill that would have allowed the six to obtain payment from the state.
State Sen. Roy Baker said he asked to have the bill held in committee pending the decision by the appeals court. But the ruling didn’t come down until after the Legislature had adjourned for the year.
Still, Baker said, he thinks that the proposal merits debate and a vote by lawmakers. In the meantime, he said that while he feels compassion for the six people who were wrongly imprisoned, he also sympathizes with Gage County residents faced with paying for a reckless investigation that wasn’t their fault.
“That’s not sitting well with Gage County citizens,” he said.