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6 wrongly convicted of Nebraska killing to get new trial in lawsuit against county officials

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OMAHA, Nebraska — A federal appeals court ruled Monday that six people wrongly convicted in a 1985 slaying of a woman in southeast Nebraska should get a new trial in their lawsuit against the officials who prosecuted them.

The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said a jury should decide whether Gage County officials conspired to build the case against the six in the 1985 killing of Helen Wilson in Beatrice.

The appellate court said a lower court judge was wrong to dismiss several claims against Gage County and several officials with the sheriff's department.

The initial trial in the lawsuit ended in mistrial in January.

One of the attorneys defending the county officials, Pat O'Brien said he is still reviewing Monday's ruling and hasn't decided whether to pursue an additional appeal.

The wrongly convicted individuals — known as the Beatrice Six — served a combined 77 years in prison before DNA testing cleared them in 2008.

The individuals have argued that Gage County investigators recklessly strove to close the case, rather than seek justice. The six — James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph White and Thomas Winslow — also argued Gage County failed to properly train investigators.

Three of the six confessed and implicated the others. White's estate and the five others are seeking at least $14 million for violations of their civil rights and because they say they were coerced into making incriminating statements. White died in 2011.

The Appeals Court said Monday that the wrongly convicted individuals submitted substantial evidence to support a conspiracy, including that investigators suggested to Dean, Shelden and Gonzalez that they had repressed their memories of the crime, conducted unreported interrogations, disregarded inconsistencies and ignored verifiable alibis.

These six individuals were the first people in the state cleared by DNA evidence, which was made possible by a 2007 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling.

After the evidence from Wilson's rape and murder was tested, authorities said the crime had been linked to 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.

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