5 Pardoned After Wrongful Conviction In Neb.Crime

By: AP
By: AP

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Five people imprisoned for the 1985 rape and murder of a 68-year-old woman were pardoned Monday, two months after investigators said DNA evidence proved they were innocent.

In all, six people were convicted in the death of Helen Wilson of Beatrice. Investigators had described a gruesome crime scene in which Wilson was held down and raped in front of a group of people. Her hands were bound, and she died of suffocation.

Assistant Attorney General Corey O'Brien told the parole board Monday that only one man committed the crime.

And the three men and three women convicted of the crime were innocent "not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond all doubt," he said.

"It finally puts closure on something I knew all along," 43-year-old Thomas Winslow said after being pardoned.

Yet, Winslow and the other four pardoned Monday had pleaded guilty to the rape and murder. Only Joseph White, who didn't seek a pardon because his conviction was overturned last year, had maintained his innocence.

"If it wasn't for him being stubborn and saying he's innocent all along, we wouldn't be here right now," said 44-year-old James Dean, who was released from prison in 1994.

Investigators now say the real killer was Bruce Allen Smith, a former Beatrice native who returned to the city days before the murder, then went back to Oklahoma.

He was among the original suspects, but DNA tests performed in the original investigation appeared to exclude him. Newer tests performed recently showed that the earlier test result was flawed.

Smith died of AIDS in 1992 at age 30.

The five defendants who pleaded guilty said they were threatened with the death penalty and told that others had implicated them in the crime. They were offered plea deals to confess.

"I had a 14-month-old baby," said 45-year-old JoAnn Taylor, who spent 19 years in prison. "I was told they'd make me the first female on death row."

Deb Shelden, 50, said she was surprised she got a pardon. She has maintained that she was at the scene but didn't participate in the crime, but said Monday, "I don't know what to believe any more."

"They say the evidence shows we weren't there," she said.

Her husband, Clifford, said his wife was confused by a psychiatrist who helped her "recover" what she came to believe were memories.

O'Brien said Shelden and others may have been brainwashed. Shelden and Kathy Gonzalez, 48, completed their sentences in 1994.

In 2007, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that White and Wilson could ask for DNA tests to try to prove their innocence, after lower courts had denied them the tests on the basis that they wouldn't absolve the men.

Nebraska's DNA testing law is about 8 years old and requires the state to test DNA evidence if it is likely to produce evidence that someone else committed the crime.

A pardon doesn't mean a person is considered innocent of the crime, and it doesn't erase a criminal record. O'Brien said he would ask a judge to order the criminal records for the six former inmates expunged. The pardon restores civil rights, such as the right to get a passport, vote and serve in the military.

Nebraska might soon join 25 states and the District of Columbia that have laws entitling exonerated inmates to government compensation. Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah has introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would provide for a minimum of $50,000 for each year an innocent person is incarcerated. Rogert wants to make the law retroactive.

The state might end up paying either way. Several of the former inmates said they're working with an attorney to file a lawsuit.

"If I don't, I'm a fool," Dean said.

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On the Net:

Attorney General Jon Bruning: http://www.ago.state.ne.us

Nebraska Legislature: http://www.unicam.state.ne.us

The Innocence Project: http://www.innocenceproject.org

Life After Exoneration: http://www.exonerated.org

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