Me: As you reflect back on the Beatrice 6 case, from your office’s perspective, what surprised you the most about this case?
Bruning: In the end, the right answer seemed crystal clear. Bruce Allen Smith is the perpetrator of the crime. The other six were innocent. But I was shocked at the anger from some of those who are still convinced the six were culpable. People in high places, with big jobs, convinced the truth was 180 degrees different than the certainty I had. I received several angry entreaties from important people convinced I let a group of murderers go free. It obviously didn’t sway my decision, and I sleep well at night knowing my office played a part in finding justice here.
Me: How did the Beatrice 6 wrongful conviction case affect you as a lawyer, a state prosecutor, a Nebraskan? Do you still think about it from time to time?
Bruning: I think about it regularly. My wife and I watched the documentary “Making a Murderer” and I couldn’t help but see similarities. My prosecutor friends from Wisconsin tell me it’s not close, that the main character is guilty and the documentary was slanted. But the truth can be different things to different people. I also realized how amazing our system is that the truth was found, even after the passage of years. I trust the system. On the other hand, one prosecutor rushing to judgment combined with one overzealous deputy sheriff can create a horrendous result. They had the best of intentions, to protect the public, but they ignored far too many warning signs in this case.
Me:At any time during your involvement with the Beatrice 6 case, did the thought ever cross your mind that ‘Hey, we might be ruffling some feathers, so to speak, by opening up this can of worms known as the Helen Wilson murder case?’
Bruning: Almost immediately I had pretty vicious feedback from both people in high office and some in the general public, and even some in my own office. People can say a lot of things about me, but one is not that I cower to public or private pressure. I don’t mind getting challenged, it made me more motivated to find the truth.
In an odd way, I like taking the road less traveled. I’ve never wanted to follow the herd. I loved being AG because I could do what was right, according to my conscience.
Me: What would you most want your state’s public officials – whether that’s local law enforcement or state police officers, elected county prosecutors, the judges, etc. to takeaway from the Helen Wilson murder case based on your unique inside perspective that you had here?
Bruning: Don’t rush to judgment. Run down every lead. Get divergent input. We have top tier law enforcement in Nebraska, and so long as we allow them to do their jobs they’ll come to the right answers. Elected county prosecutors have immense power, and it’s important we continue to have the best and brightest step up for those jobs and law enforcement jobs. In my experience every law enforcement official and prosecutor I’ve worked with has only wanted to find the truth.