LINCOLN — Gage County property owners will see higher taxes under a plan to start paying more than $28 million in damages owed to six people sent to prison in the nation’s largest wrongful murder conviction case.
The Gage County Board voted this week to raise the property tax levy to the maximum allowed under the State Constitution. The 11.76 cent increase will raise about $3.8 million next year, Board Chairman Myron Dorn said.
But members of the so-called Beatrice Six won’t see any payments sooner than in six months, according to their lawyers. And the case could drag out even longer if the county succeeds in a long-shot attempt to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal.
Still, it’s a positive development, said Robert Bartle, one of the lawyers for the three men and three women convicted of the 1985 rape and homicide of Helen Wilson of Beatrice.
“All of them would be interested in a resolution,” Bartle said. It’s been a long time.”
The Beatrice Six collectively spent more than 70 years in prison for a crime that DNA testing years later showed that they did not commit. A subsequent task force investigation led to a DNA match with an Oklahoma man who died in 1992 but had been in Beatrice the night Wilson was suffocated.
The six filed their suit in 2009, and a jury ruled in their favor in 2016, finding that three members of the Gage County Sheriff’s Office committed civil rights violations.
The total owed by the county is now about $30 million, which includes interest and fees owed to lawyers representing the six. In addition, officials have paid about $1.8 million to outside lawyers hired to defend the county.
Under state law, the six cannot demand that the county do more than raise its tax levy to make payments on the damages. It would take the county about eight years to pay off the total amount owed.
The County Board voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the tax increase after a public hearing that included opposition testimony from several residents, Dorn said. For now, the county has ruled out the possibility of declaring bankruptcy, he added.
“(Raising the levy) is the only avenue that’s available to us to pay this type of federal judgment at this time,” he said.
County officials also support pursuing legislation in 2019 to require the state to help counties pay such judgments. They argue that the six were convicted under state criminal law.
In addition, the county is pursuing legal action against insurance carriers who have denied the county’s claims for coverage. A favorable ruling in that lawsuit could lead to payment of some of the damages.
If raising taxes is the only option left to the county over time, future boards will have to approve the increases on an annual basis, Dorn said.
Those wrongfully convicted in the case were Joseph E. White, Kathleen Gonzalez, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Ada JoAnn Taylor. White died in a workplace accident in 2011, less than three years after he won his release from a life prison sentence by obtaining DNA testing of preserved crime scene evidence.