- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A jury of seven men and five women on Tuesday resumed deliberations in a civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for six people wrongly convicted in a 1985 Nebraska murder.

The case was turned over to the jury on Monday afternoon, the Lincoln Journal Star said (https://bit.ly/1cpcVmE ). They resumed their work Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

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 are 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.

“It is up to you today to pass judgment for what you have seen,” Maren Chaloupka, one of their attorneys, said in closing arguments Monday. “And we are not going to let Jerry DeWitt, Wayne Price and Burdette Searcey get away with this,” she said, referring to the then-Sheriff DeWitt and his two deputies, who conducted the investigation that led to the wrongful convictions.

DeWitt has since died.

Chaloupka said Gage County investigators recklessly strove to close Helen Wilson’s murder case, rather than seek justice. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf has already dismissed Gage County and other defendants from the case, leaving the three to face the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the three 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.

“The fact is we don’t know who killed Mrs. Wilson based on the evidence before you,” attorney Patrick O’Brien said Monday.

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.


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

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