One of the most obvious reasons people should care about bad cops and prosecutors is that DNA has brought some of the mistakes home. Not just that it happened, but to actual homes, in the form of property tax. You’re willing to accept mistakes? You support cops, even when they’re wrong, violent, racist or criminals? Not that it’s a fair position, but it’s certainly not unique.
Then the bill comes due. Not always, and not enough as many cases have no DNA to prove innocence and so the errors will never be found, the innocent never freed. But in those few that are, the cost can be steep. And as the people of Gage County, Nebraska, found out, it can be a bill from decades before. And it can be costly.
The tangled case began in February 1985, when Ms. Wilson was found inside the apartment where she lived by herself. She had been beaten, raped and suffocated.
A horrible crime anywhere, but especially in a rural county in eastern Nebraska.
As the official investigation went cold, a former Beatrice police officer, Burdette Searcey, was pursuing his own private investigation, and eventually took over the case after he was hired as a Gage County sheriff’s deputy in 1989.
Mr. Searcey, who did not respond to a request for comment, focused on six mostly poor, troubled people with loose ties to Beatrice. Some had substance abuse problems and criminal records. One of the three women charged in the murder said she had been sexually assaulted multiple times as a girl and had spent her life dealing with mental illness. Another had developmental disabilities and said she had been raped by her stepfather.
Searcey accomplished two things. He closed the case and did so without implicating anyone people cared about.
“None of us were living aboveboard lives,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “We were all partyers. We were all basically chemically induced idiots. That made us disposable. That made it O.K. for them to throw us away.”
The only problem was that DNA subsequently proved the false confessions and testimony were, well, false.
A task force led by Nebraska’s attorney general then identified the real killer as Bruce Allen Smith, who had been 22 at the time of the murder and was seen heading toward Ms. Wilson’s apartment building the night she was killed. Mr. Smith died in 1992.
The defendants sued and won a judgment for a total of $28 million. The cost of such judgments is hard for large geographical areas to swallow. For Gage County, the bill was harsh.
Gage County spent a decade and nearly $2 million in legal fees fighting the suit, rejecting offers to settle for $15 million, before its final appeals were rejected by the United States Supreme Court early this month. The county’s insurance will not cover the judgment, which puts taxpayers on the hook for the full $28 million.
There’s no big pot of money sitting around to pay the judgment, and there’s no vast number of taxpayers around whom it can be divided, so no one feels the pinch too hard.
“I wasn’t even born,” said Nick Faulder, 25, who manages a paint store. He expects to pay an additional $3,500 in property taxes this year on his family’s 320-acre farm. “I’m unfortunate enough to have to pay for the mistakes of the past leadership.”
There are two ironies here, the first being obvious in that Faulder couldn’t influence, even if he was so inclined, the manner in which the case was investigated or prosecuted before he was born. The second is that it’s not clear what past leadership got wrong, based upon law enforcement methodologies of the time.
Sure, they elicited false memories and statements, but that was largely the point of the Reid Technique. This was how cases were solved. But for DNA, this would have been a huge investigative success. After all, they got a conviction at Joseph White’s trial, the only case not to end with a plea.
Had it only been the price of the bill, the personal impact on the residents of Gage County who did no wrong, but pay for the mistakes of others, it would be understandable. But there was a secondary complaint as well.
But a darker view also pervades conversations across Beatrice’s downtown among those who still believe that the six people who were convicted are guilty, despite the pardons, the DNA evidence and the state-run investigation identifying a different killer.
It’s not enough that the Beatrice Six spent a collective 77 years in prison for a crime committed by some dead guy, but that the DNA exoneration still doesn’t end the belief that, facts be damned, they were guilty of something.
“They knew too much about it to be innocent,” Karen Probst said one afternoon as she chatted with customers inside her family’s quilting store. Her family owns hundreds of acres of precious irrigated land outside Beatrice, with tax bills that she said were likely to increase by $10,000 or more.
Is this because Karen Probst is angry that her share of the bill is so high, and so she manufactures an excuse that’s comforts her at the expense of the disposable but innocent Beatrice Six? And then there’s the “real victim” rationalization.
“She’s the forgotten person in this,” Mr. Houseman said one morning, standing at the counter of his family’s dry-cleaning business, where he has spent 30 years answering people’s questions about his grandmother’s murder.
Whether Helen Wilson is forgotten is up to the people of Gage County. There is no question that there was a murder victim here, as without it there wouldn’t have been a Beatrice Six to sit in prison for a killing they didn’t do. But that doesn’t change the issue at hand, that there is a $28 million judgment and Gage County has to get the money to pay it from somewhere, even if that means it has to reach into the pockets of people who did nothing wrong, weren’t even alive at the time.
Ms. Gonzalez said she was struck by the irony.
“Because I know about paying for something somebody else did,” she said.
The bill has come due and it has to be paid. Not to rub salt in the wound, but there may be more bills due as well.