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Nebraska county seeks help in paying $28M judgment

February 22, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Residents of a southeastern Nebraska county are seeking state help to pay for a more than $28 million federal judgment owed to six people wrongfully convicted for a 1985 slaying, and one state lawmaker has proposed several measures to aid the county.

Gage County residents and officials told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the judgment has forced the financially strapped county to raise its property tax by more than 30 percent, which is expected to generate an extra $3.8 million annually.

“We realize the state has its own budget shortfalls,” said Erich Tiemann, the county board chairman. “We also realize you are not required to pay but we are coming to you asking for help.”

Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, who is a former chairman of the county board, asked the committee to consider a bill that would allow a political subdivision facing a federal judgment for wrongful conviction or imprisonment to file a claim with the state, which could cover part or all of the judgment.

Dorn is also pursuing options that would allow counties facing a federal judgment to impose a sales tax or receive a state loan.

Kathy Gonzales, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor and the estate of Joseph White were wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of Helen Wilson. They spent more than 75 years combined in prison until DNA evidence cleared them in 2008. Wilson’s death has since been linked to a former Beatrice resident who died in 1992.

The six sued the county and won the multimillion-dollar award — a jury decision affirmed by a federal appeals court panel in June. County officials still hope the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn it.

Residents argued that they shouldn’t have to carry the weight of the judgment. The burden falls largely on the 1,300 farmers who own 75 percent of the county’s taxable land. Farmer Art Nietfeld estimates that he’ll have to pay an additional $10,000 in property taxes annually until the judgment is paid off.