Nebraska county might repay judgment in subsequent three years

BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska county that was ordered to pay $28.1 million to six people wrongfully convicted of murder may be able to cover the balance of the federal judgment in the next three years, much sooner than first expected, officials said.

Gage County officials had initially predicted that it would take nine years to pay off the legal judgment, according to the Beatrice Daily Sun.

The change in schedule came after state lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved $4 million in state money this year to help the county.

Senators also passed a state law in 2019 to let the county impose a half-cent sales to to pay off the judgment faster, despite objections from Ricketts that it bypassed the normal process of seeking voter approval. The sales tax has generated about $1 million a year and will expire once the judgment is fully paid. Gage County also settled with its insurance carriers to receive nearly $6 million toward the judgment.

Gage County made its first payment, totaling $1.9 million, in June 2019 after exhausting all of its appeals. As of December, the county had paid $14.9 million to the wrongfully convicted people, collectively known as the Beatrice Six.

In a meeting Wednesday, the Gage County Board of Supervisors formally thanked Ricketts, state Sen. Myron Dorn, who represents the area, and other lawmakers who approved the financial assistance.

“The light is at the end of the tunnel,” said County Board Chairman Erich Tiemann. “We’re at that four year range, and three years potentially with this. We’re going to keep clicking away and this will be behind us before we know it.”

The Beatrice Six were convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment.

They were arrested in March and April 1989 and spent a combined 75 years in prison until DNA evidence showed another man had committed the crime. In 2016, a federal jury awarded the six a combined $28.1 million.

Similar legislative bills failed to gain traction in the past, but Dorn, who was the chairman of the Gage County Board of Supervisors before being elected to the legislature, previously said it helped that the county settled with insurance carriers last year.

In August, Gage County reached a settlement with insurance companies including Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association (NIRMA), Employers Mutual Casualty (EMC) and four excess insurance carriers for settlements.