OMAHA, Nebraska — A federal judge has approved a plan by lawyers representing six people wrongly convicted in a 1985 Nebraska slaying to go ahead with an appeal on his decision to dismiss Gage County from their wrongful prosecution lawsuit.
Such appeals are usually allowed only after a final decision has been reached in a lawsuit, but the lawsuit ended in a mistrial in late January.
James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph White and Thomas Winslow served a combined 77 years in prison for the 1985 killing of Helen Wilson 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 they were coerced into making damaging statements. Three of the six confessed and implicated the others.
The attorney for the wrongly convicted people — known as the Beatrice Six — had argued that Gage County investigators recklessly strove to close the case, rather than seek justice. The six also argued that Gage County was liable for failing to properly train the sheriff's officials.
But two weeks into the trial, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf dismissed Gage County, saying the Beatrice Six failed to present evidence of an official policy, an unofficial custom or deliberately indifferent failure to train sheriff's officials.
The trial proceeded against three sheriff's investigators, but a jury failed to reach a verdict after three days of deliberation, leading to the mistrial. The Beatrice Six plan to try the case again.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf said the plaintiffs should not have to wait until the end of the second trial before being allowed to appeal the dismissal of the county.
"If the plaintiffs were successful on appeal, a third trial would then be necessary," Kopf wrote in his order. "This would not be an efficient use of judicial resources, and it would subject all parties to unnecessary expense and other burdens of trial."