Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

8th Circuit Allows Reckless Investigation Suit to Proceed After DNA Evidence Leads to Pardons for Four Convicted Murderers

In October 2012, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that four individuals (two men and two women), who had pleaded guilty or no contest to a Gage County, Nebraska rape/murder for which they subsequently received full pardons, had presented sufficient evidence to allow the Fourteenth Amendment claims based on reckless investigation and manufactured false evidence to proceed against members of the sheriff’s department who investigated the crime.

Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, and Ada Taylor were convicted in 1989 for participating in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson in Beatrice, Nebraska. Winslow entered a no contest plea and was sentenced to 50 years in prison; Dean pleaded guilty and received a 10-year prison term; Gonzalez entered a plea of nolo contendere and also received a 10-year prison term; Taylor pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

A fifth defendant, Joseph White, was found guilty of first-degree felony murder after a jury trial at which Dean, Taylor, and Gonzalez (but not Winslow) testified against him. White was sentenced to life imprisonment. [See related PLN story concerning White.]

In 2008, DNA testing established that the blood and semen collected from Wilson’s apartment matched one Bruce Allen Smith, an individual with no connection to Winslow, Dean, Gonzalez, Taylor, or White. A reinvestigation of the case determined that Smith committed the crime by himself. Consequently, the Nebraska Pardons Board granted full pardons to Winslow, Dean, Gonzalez, and Taylor, and White’s conviction was overturned.

After being pardoned, Winslow, Dean, Gonzalez, and Taylor filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Gage County, the county prosecutor Richard Smith (unrelated to Bruce Allen Smith), and members of the Sheriff’s Department who investigated the Wilson homicide. They alleged that the defendants violated their due process rights by recklessly investigating the Wilson murder and by coercing them to plead guilty.

The district court found that the defendants were entitled to either qualified or absolute immunity, and accordingly granted their motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of absolute immunity to the county prosecutor, as well as its determination that there was insufficient evidence to support the plaintiffs’ claims that their guilty pleas were unconstitutionally coerced. In all other respects, it reversed.

Applying de novo review, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the district court had failed to draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs’ favor (as required on a defendant’s motion for summary judgment); doing so, the Eighth Circuit found the evidence sufficient to support Plaintiffs’ claims that the defendants had violated their rights to fair criminal proceedings.

Specifically, the Eighth Circuit found the evidence sufficient to support an inference that defendants systematically coached, pressured, or indoctrinated witnesses into providing false testimony that was in line with their theory of the case; that they purposefully ignored evidence that was contrary (and potentially fatal) to their theory; and that, in doing so, they acted recklessly, “thereby shocking the conscience.”

The case was remanded to the district court. See Winslow v. Smith, 696 F.3d 716 (8th Cir. 2012).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Winslow v. Smith