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Mistrial in Nebraska wrongful convictions lawsuit

- Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A federal judge has declared a mistrial in a civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for six people wrongly convicted in a 1985 Nebraska murder.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports (http://bit.ly/1aKOCAU ) that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf declared a mistrial Thursday after three days of jury deliberation following a three-week trial.

Six of the 12 jurors told the judge Thursday that they were unlikely to reach a verdict.

"Counsel, I think this has gone on long enough," Kopf said Thursday afternoon before declaring the mistrial.

James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph White and Thomas Winslow served a combined 77 years in prison before DNA testing exonerated them in 2008. The estate of White, who died in 2011, and the surviving five were seeking at least $14 million in damages, saying their civil rights were violated and that they were coerced into damaging statements. Three of the six confessed and implicated the others.

The attorneys for the wrongly convicted people - known as the Beatrice Six - had argued that Gage County investigators Wayne Price and Burdette Searcey, as well as the late Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, recklessly strove to close Helen Wilson's murder case, rather than seek justice. Gage County and other defendants were dismissed from the case, leaving Price, Searcey and DeWitt's estate to face the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the three had challenged the innocence of the six, suggesting that the man later tied to the crime by DNA could have gone to Wilson's Beatrice apartment after she was killed overnight Feb. 5, 1985.

Investigators originally described a scene in which the 68-year-old 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.

Bob Bartle, an attorney for the Beatrice Six, told the newspaper that his clients are disappointed, but plan to move forward with a second trial. A new trial date will be set in the coming weeks, he said.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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