The Tragic Truth About The Beatrice Six

The unfortunate story of the Beatrice Six is one of the many examples of wrongful conviction cases in the U.S. Every year thousands of innocent people are convicted and handed a prison sentence — some even get sent to death row, reports The Marshall Project. Before the introduction of forensic science and its groundbreaking advancements, the justice system would often fail in getting it right. Sometimes DNA was not tested and people could be sent to jail on hearsay. And in several cases, all it took was a confession.

That was the situation in the case of the Beatrice Six — a sextet convicted in 1989 for the rape and murder of a grandmother in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska (via The Washington Post). In 1985, 68-year-old Helen Wilson was found dead in her apartment. Her case would go cold for four years until investigators arrested three men and three women for her murder — James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, and Joseph White. The group would be dubbed the Beatrice Six and their lives would be turned upside down as the main suspects in the case.

The confessions that did the Beatrice Six in

In March 1989, Beatrice investigators began their hunt for the people they suspected of committing the murder of Helen Wilson, and they set out for the group. Through interviews with multiple witnesses, hours-long and controversially-threatening interrogations, and varying statements from the suspects themselves, the town's county seat of Gage County began prosecuting the case.

The first person to be arrested was Ada JoAnn Taylor, then Joseph White, and then Thomas Winslow. In April of 1989, authorities continued arrests for the case, and arrested Debra Shelden and James Dean. And the following month, they arrested the last of the six, Kathleen Gonzalez.

Taylor went on to confess to her involvement in the crime, also naming James White. Winslow was also interviewed and named himself and three others. The controversial interrogations would prove to create false confessions which were recanted in later years. The lead investigator in the case was a deputy by the name of Burt Searcey. He apparently used rumors and informant statements to go after the group, and the sole DNA evidence found at the scene was a blood sample that was never connected to anyone, per Omaha World-Herald.

Beatrice Six heads to prison

But the confessions obtained were mostly false. Debra Shelden also gave an admission to the crime. Despite denying any involvement in the crime, Dean too, would suddenly admit his apparent participation in the crime. A sheriff-appointed psychologist helped several of the Beatrice Six recover supposed repressed memories of the crime, despite there being clear evidence that their statements contradicted evidence at the scene. However, most of these confessions were given out of fear, says Omaha World-Herald.

The group would all take falls and take different pleas during trial. Gonzalez entered a plea of no contest along with Winslow. Taylor, Dean, and Debra Shelden all acted as witnesses for the prosecution in their case against White, and all pled guilty. Out of all, White maintained his innocence throughout, but was found guilty, reported The Washington Post.

At sentencing, White was sentenced to life, Winslow was handed a 50-year sentence, and Taylor was served a 40-year sentence. The remaining three all received 10-year sentences.

Beatrice Six gets exonerated

The DNA evidence would remain a critical and important part of the case. Even though investigators initially knew ahead of trial that none of the six exactly matched the blood found at the crime scene, they still prosecuted them based on the confessions they obtained, and implications of some of the suspects by their fellow suspects.

That semen evidence found recovered from the scene came into question in 2008 when White and Winslow would request the court retest the DNA. It did not match, and they found that it actually matched another man named Bruce Allen Smith, who was a suspect in the case at one point, reported Beatrice Daily Sun. The blood evidence at the scene would match Smith as well — exonerating all of the Beatrice Six of involvement in the 1985 crime.

After serving close to two decades in prison for a crime they did not commit, White and Winslow were released in October of 2008. The following month after recanting, Taylor was released, per Innocence Project. The other three had been previously released earlier serving half of their sentences. White's conviction was overturned, and the rest were pardoned by the state of Nebraska.

Damages owed to the Beatrice Six

All but Shelden would file suits against the state for their wrongful convictions. But it would take several suits before the state started agreeing to some of the payouts. The state would agree to pay White $500,000, Gonzalez $350,000, and Winslow $180,000, reported the Lincoln Journal Star. Taylor would also receive $500,000 and Dean was awarded $300,000.

However, total damages to the Beatrice Six would eventually cost Gage county $28 million dollars, per Omaha World-Herald. In 2016, a civil suit would award $7.3 million to Taylor, Winslow, and White, $2 million to Dean and Gonzalez, and $1.8 million to Shelden. Tragically, White did not live to hear the judgment in his favor, and it was awarded to his estate. He died during a work-related accident at the age of 48 in 2011, per ABC Nebraska. The Beatrice Six were the first people in the state's history to be cleared and exonerated with DNA.