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$28.1 Million Jury Award after Eighth Circuit Allows Conspiracy Claims in Nebraska Wrongful Conviction Suit

On December 31, 2015, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that six wrongfully convicted former prisoners could sue Gage County, Nebraska for conspiring to manufacture false evidence; further, law enforcement officials involved in the investigation that led to the wrongful convictions were not entitled to qualified immunity. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.16].

Joseph White was convicted in 1989 of raping and murdering Helen Wilson, 68. To convict him, prosecutors used the testimony of his co-defendants, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas W. Winslow, James L. Dean, Kathleen A. Gonzalez and Debra Shelden, all of whom pleaded guilty to related charges. Collectively they were known as the Beatrice Six.

In 2008, DNA evidence exonerated the Beatrice Six, who were pardoned or had their convictions overturned. They filed independent lawsuits against Gage County, then-Sheriff Jerry O. DeWitt and two of his employees under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. They claimed the defendants led a reckless investigation, manufactured false evidence, conspired to manufacture false evidence and coerced false testimony. Wilson’s murder was eventually linked to Bruce Allen Smith, who died in 1992.

Initially, a consolidated trial in the lawsuits resulted in a hung jury. The defendants then filed motions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, requesting dismissal of all claims against the county and a conspiracy claim, and asserting qualified immunity as to the plaintiffs’ other claims. The district court dismissed the county and the conspiracy claim but denied qualified immunity. An appeal and cross-appeal followed.

The Eighth Circuit noted that its ruling denying qualified immunity on a previous interlocutory appeal was binding unless substantially different evidence had been produced at trial. It held there was only a slight variance in the evidence, which failed “to alleviate this court’s previous concerns or overcome the vast amount of troubling evidence presented at trial.” Therefore, the Court of Appeals held qualified immunity had been correctly denied.

The Court further found that, given the fully developed record and the waste of time it would represent for the plaintiffs to appeal the dismissal of the conspiracy claim following another trial, it would decide that issue prior to the retrial. The Eighth Circuit concluded the district court had erred in dismissing the conspiracy claim.

In ruling on a previous interlocutory appeal, the appellate court held that “a factfinder could determine that White’s conviction was the result of a purposeful conspiracy by Defendants to fabricate evidence.” Thus, the evidence was sufficient to present a conspiracy claim. Further, the plaintiffs had not waived that claim, as the district court believed; instead, they asserted and submitted jury instructions for the conspiracy claim.

The plaintiffs produced proof of questionable procedures and hasty conclusions by officials in charge of policymaking during the investigation, including conducting improper interrogations that were neither recorded nor reported, ignoring verifiable alibis, withholding evidence such as a blood-semen mismatch and other exculpatory evidence from the crime scene, improperly conducting interviews, claiming the plaintiffs had suppressed or blocked memories of the crime, and subjecting them to polygraphs and hypnosis on that basis.

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that Sheriff DeWitt – who died in 2012 – had been the final policymaker for Gage County with respect to the sheriff’s department. Therefore, the county could be sued under a theory of municipal liability. The Court reversed the dismissal of the conspiracy claim and other claims against Gage County, affirmed the denial of qualified immunity and remanded the case for further proceedings. The defendants moved for rehearing and rehearing en banc, which were denied in January 2016. See: Dean v. County of Gage, 807 F.3d 931 (8th Cir. 2015), rehearing denied.

Following remand, the case went to trial and in July 2016 a federal jury entered judgment in favor of Dean in the amount of $2,190,000; the jury also awarded $7.3 million to White’s estate, while Gonzalez was awarded $2.19 million, Winslow received $7.3 million and Taylor was awarded $7.3 million. Shelden received a judgment of $1,825,000, for a total damages award of $28,105,100.

On September 6, 2016, the district court entered a combined award of $1,721,519.84 in attorney fees and costs to the plaintiffs, who were represented by attorneys Jeffery D. Patterson, Robert F. Bartle, Herbert J. Friedman and Matthew Kosmicki of Lincoln; Maren Lynn Chaloupka of Scottsdale; and Douglas Stratton of Norfolk.

Gage County has since appealed the jury verdict to the Eighth Circuit, and on October 6, 2016 the district court denied the defendants’ motion to stay the judgments.

“I do not believe I should exercise whatever discretion I may have to stay enforcement of the judgments under Fed.R.Civ.P. 62(g)7,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Kopf. “I am especially sensitive to the years and years of imprisonment suffered by the Plaintiffs, the long litigation history of these cases, and the fact that Defendants have had about eight years in this court alone to plan for this eventuality. With respect, the time of reckoning has long since passed.”

Taylor, Winslow and White (who died in 2011) had each spent 20 years in prison, while Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden served between five and six years before they were exonerated.

Additional source: Associated Press

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Related legal case

Dean v. Cnty. of Gage