That’s where the media spotlight returned this past week. A handful of journalists are covering the plight of the Beatrice 6. It’s now been eight years since Beatrice, Nebraska, a city of 12,000, became the new home of the country’s worst nightmare involving a miscarriage of justice. A total of 6 people lost 70 years of their lives for somebody else’s rape and murder. The threat of Nebraska’s dreaded electric chair played a role in their wrongful convictions.
For the entire story, you can read my new 400-page book FAILURE OF JUSTICE about America’s largest mass exoneration involving DNA evidence.
Find out more about FAILURE OF JUSTICE here.
In 1989, Burt Searcey, a rural Gage County farmer turned sheriff’s deputy, secured six convictions against three troubled young men and three women who were not involved in the predatory rape and murder of Helen Wilson, an older widow. Wilson lived in a three-story apartment building along the community’s main downtown business district.
This past week, three major media outlets- the Lincoln Journal Star, the Omaha World-Herald and Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET) flocked to the federal courthouse in Lincoln. The federal civil rights trial for the Beatrice 6 is taking place. A jury of Nebraskans will determine whether or not the defendants – including Gage County – should be held financially liable for the nation’s largest wrongful conviction case.
The trial judge is Richard Kopf, who is widely regarded as a flaky judge.
In other words, don’t take anything for granted in Judge Kopf’s courtroom. The first Beatrice 6 civil rights trial ended in a mistrial. Kopf, in mid-trial, actually dismissed Gage County as one of the defendants. In an embarrassing moment for Kopf, the appeals court reversed his decision. This time around, Kopf was ordered to keep Gage County as a key defendant in the Beatrice 6.
Over the past week, Lori Pilger of the Lincoln Journal Star provided the most reliable ongoing daily coverage and she’s also active on Twitter. Her twitter posts are timely and they are concise.
The Omaha World-Herald, where I worked from 2003 through 2012, has provided spotty trial coverage, but that’s by design, I’m told. Omaha, which is the state’s largest metropolitan paper, has been in a significant tailspin since 2008 with daily newspaper circulation in deep decline. Omaha just doesn’t have enough reporter bodies available anymore to staff the entire Beatrice 6 trial in Lincoln, which was anticipated to go a few weeks, maybe longer, we’ll see.
Key events from last week’s trial coverage:
On Friday, the Lincoln paper’s Pilger detailed the trial testimony from disgraced Gage County Sheriff’s Corporal Burt Searcey. He continues to run around Beatrice, Nebraska, like the Emperor With No Clothes.
Here’s Pilger’s June 10 story:
Man Behind Beatrice arrests: There were 7 people involved
“There were seven people involved,” Searcey testified on Friday in U.S. District Court, Pilger wrote.
If you ever watch the wonderfully scripted Alexander Payne 2013 movie Nebraska https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuIBvmxIN4w you’ll hopefully gain a better understanding of why a lot of unsophisticated people in rural Nebraska still back Searcey to this very day. A number of people are actually rooting for him and the defendants to prevail rather than the Beatrice 6!
Now 67, Searcey continues to wear a police uniform and represent the Gage County Sheriff’s Office. He’s one of the agency’s highest paid supervisors.
From Thursday, June 9 trial testimony:
Pilger reported that the original lead investigator on the Helen Wilson murder case, now-retired Beatrice Police Department detective Sam Stevens, testified he always harbored strong doubts about Searcey’s subsequent investigation.
Beatrice 6 investigator: ‘I never did believe they had the right people’
Now in his early eighties, Sam Stevens came to the federal courthouse on Thursday. Stevens hopes his testimony in the federal courtroom is beneficial to the Beatrice 6 and not to Searcey or the other defendants.
“I never did believe they had the right people,” Stevens told the jury, as reported by the Journal Star.
Stevens retired from the Beatrice Police Department in the late 1990s. Before walking out the door, he asked a fellow worker to make sure the Helen Wilson murder case evidence remained well-preserved well into the future. In 2008, that well preserved evidence proved the real killer and rapist was a drifter named Bruce Allen Smith.
“I guess it was just a hunch, knowing these people weren’t guilty,” Stevens testified on Thursday, the Journal Star reported.
Omaha reporter drops by the trial on Friday, June 10
Meanwhile, former award-winning Journal Star reporter Joe Duggan, who is mentioned in the Introduction of FAILURE OF JUSTICE, dropped by the trial on Friday. He came to cover the testimony of Deputy Searcey. Nowadays Duggan works at my old newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald.
Here’s Duggan’s story from Friday’s testimony with Searcey on the witness stand.
Duggan captured this courtroom exchange between the Beatrice 6’s lawyer Jeffry Patterson and Searcey:
“Did you and Sheriff DeWitt stop and consider whether you had arrested the right people?” Patterson asked Friday.
“No,” Searcey replied.
My takeaways from Week 1:
Civil trials where juries are asked to assess monetary damages are highly, highly unpredictable. Keep in mind, this trial is taking place in Nebraska and that state does not have a reputation for the kinds of police corruption that has been more sweeping in major U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. The defendants in this case are: Searcey, fellow deputy/psychologist Wayne Price, the estate of the late sheriff Jerry DeWitt and Gage County. Gage County has the most to lose.
The dwindling rural county of less than 25,000 people in southeastern Nebraska has already spent more than $1 million in outside legal fees since 2009. The county’s elected politicians have put forth a valiant effort in in trying to avoid being held financially culpable for the conduct of Searcey, the late Sheriff DeWitt and deputy Price.
This jury has to decide whether Searcey’s incompetency rises to the threshold of reckless police misconduct. If it does, the Beatrice 6 will prevail and be awarded millions. But nothing is ever predictable inside Judge Richard Kopf’s courtroom, just remember that.