November 8, 2008
Suspect identified in 1985 Beatrice murder
BY PAUL HAMMEL AND MARTHA STODDARD
LINCOLN — Joe White, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, had a one-word response Friday to news that the real killer had been identified.
"YEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAA," screamed White, in a telephone interview.
"I was confident that this was going to happen. The only surprise, and it's good, is that it happened so quick," said White of Holly Pond, Ala., who was in Tennessee on Friday housesitting for a sister.
In a shocking admission, backed up by modern DNA tests, Nebraska authorities acknowledged Friday that six people, including White, had been wrongly convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of a Beatrice, Neb., woman.
It marks the first time in Nebraska that DNA tests have exonerated someone convicted of a crime.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning identified Bruce Allen Smith, then 23, as the person who brutally beat and assaulted 68-year-old Helen Wilson on the frigid night of Feb. 6, 1985.
Smith had been cleared as a suspect in 1985 by less sophisticated blood tests conducted by an Oklahoma City crime lab — a lab that was later investigated for the shoddy work of its director, Dr. Joyce Gilchrist.
New DNA tests in the slaying, conducted over the past 11 months, led to the release last month of White, 45, and Thomas Winslow, 42, after no evidence was found to link the men to the crime.
A judge then ordered a new trial for White and resentenced Winslow to a term shorter than his time served.
The DNA evidence led authorities to Smith, who died of AIDS in Oklahoma City in 1992.
Luckily, blood and hairs collected from Smith in 1985 had been well-preserved. His DNA matched DNA taken from blood and semen found at the murder scene.
Bruning expressed mixed feelings at a press conference: pride that the right killer had been finally tracked down by a task force of investigators, and disappointment that a former Gage County attorney and "some members" of law enforcement had used now-discredited tactics to pressure people into confessing to something they didn't do.
"There's no doubt today that six innocent people have indeed suffered," Bruning said. "Because of the well-intentioned but misguided efforts of a number of people, the noble goals of our judicial system were twisted, perverted and turned upside down."
The first-degree murder charge against White, with the pending new trial, was dismissed Friday.
The Nebraska Pardons Board, of which Bruning is a member, will be asked quickly to pardon Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Kathy Gonzalez, Deb Sheldon and James Dean — all of whom had pleaded guilty or no contest to reduced charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Taylor, the only one of the six still in prison, will visit the State Parole Board on Monday to obtain her release, Bruning said.
"This is incredibly gratifying," said Doug Stratton, White's defense attorney, who had appealed all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court to win the right to the new DNA tests.
"It's like being behind at halftime by 50 points and coming back to win in double overtime," said Stratton, of Norfolk, Neb. "It's good to be part of a system that works."
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who championed the 2001 law that allows DNA testing in old cases where that technology didn't exist, smiled as he spoke at Bruning's press conference.
It was the first time the veteran lawmaker, a frequent critic of Bruning, had been invited to one of his press conferences, which spoke to the historic nature of Friday's developments.
"The righteous thing has occurred this time," Chambers said.
Even with the DNA evidence, officials said they had initially doubted that so many people could have admitted to crimes they didn't commit.
Chambers blamed the death penalty and the practice of charging defendants with more serious crimes to elicit testimony and encourage plea deals.
Bruning said Taylor, one of the main witnesses, was told by prosecutors and investigators that rock-solid evidence tied her to the crime and that if she didn't help them, she would become the first woman in Nebraska to get the death penalty.
He said former Gage County Attorney Dick Smith, who prosecuted the original murder cases, and some members of the Gage County Sheriff's Office who took over the murder investigation from the Beatrice Police Department used interrogation methods that have since been "discredited and discarded."
Those methods, officials said, included showing the suspects pictures of the crime scene and challenging them about why they didn't remember it, stopping and starting videotaping of interrogation sessions.
Randy Ritnour, who was elected Gage County attorney two years ago, said the interrogations indicated "they were being fed something" to include in their statements.
"These interrogations that were done were some of the worst interrogation techniques I've ever seen," said defense attorney Jerry Soucie, who represented Winslow in his appeals.
Said Bruning: "In plain language, we don't do it that way anymore."
Smith, now in private practice in Beatrice, declined to comment "until I know what's going on."
Phone messages left with Bert Searcey, the Gage County sheriff's deputy who led the murder investigation, were not returned Friday.
Searcey, a former Beatrice police officer and private investigator who knew the Wilson family, single-handedly resurrected the investigation four years after the slayings, when he produced an informant who said she overheard Taylor confessing to being involved.
Chambers said he planned to look into the case to see whether an ethics complaint should be pursued against Smith.
Chambers, who is ending a 38-year career in office next month because of term limits, said he also hoped the State Legislature would pursue a law allowing those wrongfully accused to obtain compensation for years unjustly spent in prison.
Winslow called the news about authorities finding the real killer "overwhelming."
"I'm happy, I'm excited that the truth finally came out," he said. "There's a relief there just knowing."
He said he had lost hope during his years in prison.
White, in an interview last week, pledged to file a civil lawsuit for compensation since Nebraska, unlike 25 other states, lacks any state compensation laws.
Bruning said it would be "up to the courts to decide" whether any of the six should receive compensation.
"I've got great sorrow for what they've suffered," he said.
Former Beatrice Police Chief Don Luckeroth said Friday that he had always harbored doubts about the six convictions.
When one of his officers once mentioned "he thought they had the wrong people," he was told to stay quiet, Luckeroth said.
"Someone said, 'Don't muddy the water,'" he said. "I had a bad feeling about this one."
White said he had changed the ring tone on his cell phone to the gospel song, "Free at Last." He said he might drink his first beer Friday night since being released from prison.
"The criminal justice system in America is the best in the world," White said. "The only problem with it is when people get involved who are not seeking justice but seeking ego, fame or whatever."
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