Innocence Blog

Nebraskans Mark a Year of Freedom

Posted: February 2, 2010 3:20 pm




One year ago, five Nebraskans were exonerated after serving years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. A sixth co-defendant had been cleared months earlier, and the group were the first people exonerated through DNA evidence in Nebraska history.

Dubbed the “Beatrice Six,” Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez were convicted of the 1985 murder of a Beatrice, Nebraska, woman, based on faulty forensics and false confessions.

Police uncovered biological evidence at the crime scene and sent it to an Oklahoma state crime lab, where it was tested by forensic analyst Joyce Gilchrist, who has since been discredited and whose misconduct played a role in at least three wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing.

The serology results led police away from a suspect named Bruce Allen Smith, who DNA testing would later implicate as the real perpetrator of the crime. Smith died in 1992.

The investigation stalled until 1989, when Nebraska authorities approached Winslow, who agreed to cooperate but was unaware that other members of the Beatrice Six had falsely implicated him. While there were serious inconsistencies between the suspects’ stories and the details of the crime, no further investigation appeared necessary, especially once Dean, Shelden and Gonzalez falsely confessed after intense police interrogation. Dean and Shelden’s confessions relied heavily on details they allegedly recalled from their dreams about the crime.

Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden agreed to plead guilty and testify against White in exchange shorter sentences. They each served more than four  years in prison before being released in 1994. Winslow and Taylor also pled guilty but did not testify and would each serve 18 years before their exonerations. White was convicted at trial and sentenced to life without parole — he would also serve 18 years before his exoneration.

In late 2007, Winslow finally obtained access to DNA testing on semen from the crime scene. The results implicated Smith as the perpetrator, a man who had no connection to any of the Beatrice Six. More than two decades after their wrongful convictions, the group was cleared one year ago. Five of the six defendants are currently seeking damages against county officials and others in a civil lawsuit set for trial in 2011.

This case highlights how the fear of the death penalty or life imprisonment can induce people to confess to crimes they did not commit in exchange for a lesser sentence, especially where the person is under duress. Significantly, false confessions or admissions have played a role in almost 25% of DNA exoneration cases. Learn more about false confessions and admissions as a cause of wrongful conviction here.