- Associated Press - Friday, July 18, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - In its attempt to overturn damages awarded to two of the Beatrice Six who were wrongly convicted in a 1985 murder, Nebraska could end up paying one of them more.

Ada JoAnn Taylor and James Dean were among six people wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of Helen Wilson in 1985. All of them were exonerated in 2008 after DNA testing implicated another man in the crime. Five of the six sued, seeking the maximum $500,000 each under a 2009 law that allows the state to compensate the wrongfully imprisoned. The law was created, in part, by the Beatrice Six’s wrongful convictions.

Nebraska settled with three of the six, paying the late Joseph White $500,000, Kathleen Gonzalez $350,000 and Thomas Winslow $180,000. But it balked at compensating Taylor and Dean, saying they became ineligible by perjuring themselves when they confessed to roles in the killing and falsely implicated others.

Taylor and Dean went to trial, arguing that questionable interrogation tactics led them to falsely confess. In 2012, Gage County District Judge Daniel Bryan awarded $500,000 to Taylor, who spent nearly 20 years in prison, and $300,000 to Dean, who spent more than five years in prison. State prosecutors appealed, and Dean cross-appealed, saying he should have been awarded more.

On Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld Taylor’s award, but reversed Dean’s, saying the trial judge improperly determined a lesser award because he spent less time in prison than Taylor. The awards should be based on actual damages, which can include lost wages, damage to earning capacity and pain and suffering from being wrongly imprisoned, the court said.

The high court did not determine what amount Dean should receive, instead directing the lower court to recalculate the amount based on actual damages. But the justices’ citation of the trial judge’s own words suggested the amount perhaps should be higher.

“What price is one’s liberty to be free to live (his or her) life?” the high court quoted Bryan, in trying to determine a monetary value for Taylor’s and Dean’s mental pain and suffering. “It is so priceless, it’s no wonder the Legislature placed a cap on any compensation awarded to any individual for errors of a wrongful conviction and one’s loss of freedom.”

Neither Dean’s attorney, Herbert Friedman of Lincoln, nor the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office immediately returned messages Friday seeking comment on the ruling.

The Beatrice Six spent a combined 87 years in prison before they became the first in Nebraska to be exonerated of murder based on DNA evidence following a 2007 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling allowing new DNA tests in old convictions.

Decades earlier, investigators described a gruesome scene in which 68-year-old Helen Wilson was held down and raped in front of a group of people. Her hands were bound and she died of suffocation. But in 2008, officials said the crime was the work of one man, Bruce Allen Smith, who arrived in his hometown of Beatrice days before the slaying, then returned to Oklahoma days later. Smith died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 30.

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