Criminal Justice

Suspects wrongly persuaded of their guilt to share in $28M award after Supreme Court rejects cert

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The case of the wrongly imprisoned “Beatrice Six” came to a close Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a Nebraska county’s appeal of a $28.1 million judgment for a reckless investigation by its sheriff’s department.

The six murder defendants served an estimated, collective 70 years in prison before they were exonerated based on DNA evidence that identified another man as the culprit, report the Washington Post, the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star.

Five of the defendants had pleaded guilty or no contest in the 1985 murder and rape of Helen Wilson in Beatrice, Nebraska. Three of them “wholeheartedly believed in their guilt,” according to the Washington Post.

A police psychologist, Wayne Price, had persuaded the three suspects that they couldn’t remember the crime because of repressed memories. He encouraged suspects to use “unconscious recall” to remember the crime and to use information in their dreams to identify suspects, according to a June 2018 opinion by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis.

Some of the suspects had experience with trauma because of childhood or sexual abuse. Some were mentally ill or intellectually disabled. “And so for most,” the Washington Post reported, “the idea that they could have repressed something terrible didn’t strike them as crazy.”

The initial defendants were arrested even though they did not have Type B blood, the kind that was found at the crime scene. Police figured there must be additional suspects, so the hunt continued. Interrogations proceeded, “regardless of the knee-jerk, baffling statements they gave—many of which contradicted physical evidence and statements made by fellow arrestees,” the 8th Circuit said.

The investigation ended with the arrest of a sixth suspect, who had Type B blood.

One defendant who had maintained his innocence from the beginning, Joseph White, was killed in a coal refinery incident in 2011. His mother had continued to press the civil damages suit on his behalf.

The case, profiled by the New Yorker in 2017, is Searcey v. Dean.

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