LINCOLN — Lawyers for the people wrongfully convicted in the Beatrice Six case warned Gage County elected officials Thursday to stop blaming their clients for a 1985 homicide or face even more legal action.
A letter threatening a slander lawsuit was sent in response to a statement made Wednesday during a Gage County Board meeting suggesting that the six know what “really happened” in the victim’s apartment. The letter also came 10 days after a federal appeals court ruled that the county must pay a $28 million judgment for punishing the six for a crime they did not commit.
Board member Matt Bauman of Pickrell made the statement after a closed-door session with lawyers about how to pay the judgment if the county loses its final appeals in the case. He told citizens in the audience that he would like to share more detailed information about the county’s strategy, but can’t for legal reasons.
“There’s things we have said in the past in public and the other side has used that against us, even if it’s just our opinions and ideas,” Bauman said. “It’s difficult and we feel the same way, there’s really only eight people who know what really happened, and three of them are no longer with us. It’s a tragedy all the way around.”
The statement appears to refer to the six along with the victim and a criminal drifter who was later identified as the killer by DNA testing of evidence saved from the crime scene. Jeff Patterson, one of the lawyers for the six, said the statement implies his clients were involved in the death of 68-year-old Helen Wilson.
“There are only two people that would know what really happened — Mrs. Wilson and her murderer,” Patterson said in a letter sent to the county’s lawyers. “That person — the rapist/murderer — is not Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Ada JoAnn Taylor or Debra Shelden.”
In 2008, DNA tests of the evidence matched none of the people who served more than 70 years combined for the crime. A new investigation found that DNA from multiple blood and semen samples matched only Wilson and Bruce Allen Smith, a former Beatrice resident passing through the city on the night of the slaying.
Smith died in Oklahoma City in 1992, well after the six had already been sent to prison.
Four reviews of the case by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Gage County authorities carried out a reckless investigation and manufactured evidence against the six. In addition, the state issued pardons, and an attorney general’s task force determined that the six were innocent of the crime.
In his letter, Patterson said his clients will not tolerate continued statements suggesting that they had something to do with the slaying.
“There’s no evidence that our people were there, period,” he said Thursday. “This needs to stop.”
Bauman responded to the letter by reading a prepared statement that said, “My comments were extemporaneous in nature and certainly were not intended to be inflammatory to any of the parties involved in the Beatrice Six case.”
Maren Chaloupka, who represents one of the Beatrice Six, said people who perpetuate the idea that the six participated in the crime did not attend the 2016 civil trial or spend time studying the case. If they had, she said, they would understand how the county’s investigators manufactured evidence to incriminate the six and ignored evidence that exonerated them.
“I am concerned that a narrative is emerging that Gage County should be able to avoid the judgment based on the opinions of people who are completely uninformed,” she said.