Gage County officials will continue appeals of $28 million Beatrice Six judgment

Gage County officials will continue appeals of $28 million Beatrice Six judgment
The Beatrice Six, top row, from left: Tom Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden. Bottom row, from left: Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean and Joseph E. White. (World-Herald News Service)

BEATRICE, Neb. — Gage County officials will continue trying to persuade a court to overturn the $28 million judgment in the Beatrice Six case.

The Gage County Board voted 7-0 on Wednesday to ask the full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review Monday’s decision by a three-judge panel that upheld the massive damages awarded to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 homicide.

Patrick O’Brien, one of the lawyers hired to defend the county, said he has to meet a June 25 deadline to request what’s known as an en banc review.

“We believe the panel did not examine the legal issues that we raised carefully enough, and we think there is merit to those issues,” he said.

As one example, he argued that the former sheriff did not establish policies for his investigators to conduct unlawful investigations. But such a finding was necessary to hold the county liable for monetary damages.

On Monday, an 8th Circuit panel unanimously rejected an appeal by the county to reverse the jury’s verdict or order what would be a third trial in the lawsuit. The first trial ended with a hung jury, but the second trial in 2016 resulted in a victory for the six.

Lawyers for the six have called upon county officials to devise a way to pay the judgment, which now exceeds $30 million with attorneys fees and interest.

County Board Chairman Myron Dorn said Wednesday that with so much at stake for taxpayers, it only makes sense to leave “no stone unturned.”

O’Brien acknowledged, however, that federal appeals courts rarely grant en banc rehearings.

The number of case filings provides some measure of the challenge the county faces in persuading at least six of the 11 circuit judges to agree to rehear the case. The court granted an en banc review to an average of four cases from the roughly 3,000 appeals heard annually between 2011 and 2016, according to an analysis published by the New York Law Journal.

If the 8th Circuit rejects the petition for a rehearing, county officials could decide to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. But the high court receives between 7,000 and 8,000 filings each year, while granting oral argument for about 80 of them.

The federal appeals court has consistently held that Gage County’s sheriff’s deputies carried out a reckless investigation that framed innocent people. Monday’s opinion noted that the 8th Circuit has reviewed the case four times, always siding with the six.

Monday’s decision said a painstaking review of evidence submitted in 2016 showed that the jury was correct in ordering 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.

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