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The Cost of Wrongful Convictions

The Beatrice Six know something about lost time. The group of six defendants, outcasts from the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, lost a combined 77 years of their lives in state prisons for a rape and murder they didn’t commit.

After they were cleared in 2009, they had to battle the county that prosecuted them for more than a decade before they finally obtained a $28.1 million jury award in 2016 in compensation for their wrongful convictions. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.54]. Now they also face resentment over the payout from many of their neighbors in Gage County, whose 22,000 residents are staring at hefty tax increases due to the jury award. In September 2018, the county raised the property tax rate to the maximum allowed under Nebraska’s constitution.

“They knew too much about it to be innocent,” insisted Karen Probst, whose family likely faces a $10,000 tax hike.

“This is not something you win at the lottery, something I’m inheriting from a rich relative,” countered Kathy Gonzales, one of the Beatrice Six. “Nobody wants this.”

The case dates to February 1985, when 68-year-old Helen Wilson was raped and murdered in her apartment. The official inquiry found another credible lead, but a former local cop, Burdette Searcey, spearheaded a private investigation that focused on a half-dozen people with troubled pasts – including mental health issues, substance abuse problems and criminal records.

“None of us were leading aboveboard lives,” Gonzales explained. “That made it O.K. for them to throw us away.”

Armed with Searcey’s investigation and forensic analysis by Dr. Joyce Gilchrist, who was later discredited when it was learned her work resulted in multiple wrongful convictions, police psychologist Wayne Price persuaded five of the six defendants – Gonzales, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden and James Dean – that they had repressed their memories of the crime. Three succumbed to the psychological pressure and gave false confessions. All five took plea deals.

The sixth defendant, Joseph White, received a life sentence following a 1989 trial and maintained his innocence until his death in 2011 – not long after he filed a lawsuit seeking compensation on behalf of himself and his five co-defendants. He based his claim on DNA testing that implicated the original prime suspect, Bruce Allen Smith, who had died in a Nebraska prison on unrelated charges in 1992.

Gonzales sympathizes with those coping with financial strains as a result of the $28.1 million judgment. She has been struggling to make ends meet working at a grocery store in another town since her release from prison. She agreed it was unfair her former neighbors were being saddled with the bill due to the misconduct by police officials.

“But it wasn’t fair what they did to us, either,” she noted.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), in 2018 alone, 151 people were released from prison after their cases were dismissed, having spent a combined total of 1,639 years behind bars – an average of 11 years each.

Stunningly, in 70 of those cases no crime was ever committed. That’s how Vincente Benavides was released from death row in April 2018 after serving 25 years for the rape, sodomy and murder of a 21-month-old girl. Experts eventually determined the child was never sexually abused and may well have died from injuries suffered when she was hit by a car.

Fully 70 percent of the 2018 exonerations involved misconduct by police, prosecutors or other government officials – including threats made to witnesses, false forensics reports and false confessions extorted by investigators.

Twenty percent of those who were wrongfully convicted – 31 people – were framed with drug charges after refusing to pay bribes to Chicago police officers. Sgt. Ronald Watts was convicted in that extortion scheme in 2017. As of April 2019, a total of 60 victims of Watts and another disgraced Chicago cop, Detective Reynaldo Guevera, had been exonerated.

Many other wrongful convictions resulted when overeager prosecutors relied on weak evidence or ignored exculpatory information. The longest-serving exoneree, 72-year-old Richard Phillips, spent over 45 years in a Michigan prison for a murder he didn’t commit, based on the false testimony of a witness who entered into a plea deal with prosecutors.

Thanks to Sgt. Watts, Illinois topped the NRE’s 2018 list, with California and Texas tied for second place with 16 exonerations each.

A joint project of the University of California/Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, the University of Michigan Law School and the Michigan State University College of Law, the NRE now includes a total of 2,515 individuals who lost a combined 21,000 years of their lives due to wrongful convictions. Just 23 percent of the 2018 exonerations relied on DNA evidence; a more significant factor was the spread of Criminal Investigative Units (CIUs), according to NRE editor Barbara O’Brien.

“The proliferation of new CIUs gives us reason to think that the trend will continue,” she said, referring to a tripling over five years of CIU offices nationwide, to a total of 44 – though O’Brien added that that number represents a “tiny fraction” of all prosecutor’s offices.

The NRE also tracks compensation paid to exonerees, which now totals $2.2 billion. However, that number fails to capture the additional costs of wrongfully prosecuting and incarcerating thousands of innocent people – costs that are borne by taxpayers. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have statutory provisions to provide compensation to exonerees as of June 2019, when Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed a law that grants $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment in that state.

“When I returned home after losing 17 years for a crime I didn’t commit, I had to rebuild my life with no support from the state that stole those years,” said Kristine Bunch, an Indianapolis woman who lost her young son in a fire for which she was wrongfully convicted of arson.

“There’s no way to pay back the years that we missed behind bars but providing compensation will help many of Indiana’s innocent get back on their feet after surviving terrible injustice,” agreed Roosevelt Glenn, who also spent 17 years in prison and another eight years on a sex offender registry for a rape he didn’t commit.

In the case of the Beatrice Six, officials in Gage County, Nebraska declined an offer to settle the wrongful conviction lawsuit for half the amount of the jury award, deciding instead to continue with appeals. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the county’s appeal in March 2019, thus leaving local taxpayers to foot the bill.

Several states have run into financial shortfalls for compensating the wrongfully convicted, including Michigan, where exonerees faced long waits when the state’s compensation fund was exhausted. Payments in Illinois were likewise delayed as the legislature debated the state’s budget – which gives new meaning to the phrase “Justice delayed is justice denied.” 

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Sources: nytimes.com, thecrimereport.org, reason.com, innocenceproject.org, omaha.com