OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Members of the Nebraska Board of Pardons will not have to explain why they pardoned six people who were wrongfully convicted of a 1985 Beatrice murder, a judge has ruled.
The ex-prisoners, known as the Beatrice Six, were convicted in the murder of Helen Wilson, 68, and spent a combined 87 years in prison before they were exonerated in 2008 after DNA testing implicated another man.
The six subsequently sued Gage County law enforcement, claiming officials fabricated and coerced evidence to get their convictions. Lawyers for the Beatrice Six argued that they needed the testimony of the board — Gov. Dave Heineman, Secretary of State John Gale and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning — to support their case.
But on Monday U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf granted the Pardons Board's request to quash the bid to subpoena them.
The Beatrice Six — James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph White and Thomas Winslow — were the first people in Nebraska to be exonerated in a murder case based on DNA evidence. They were cleared after a 2007 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling allowed new DNA tests in old convictions.
Investigators originally described a gruesome 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. But after the DNA tests, officials said the crime was committed by one man, Bruce Allen Smith, who grew up in Beatrice, returned to town days before the slaying and then quickly went back to Oklahoma. He died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 30.
An attorney with the Nebraska Attorney General's Office, which represented the Pardons Board in the case, said forcing the board members to answer questions would require the disclosure of privileged or protected information and would subject them to an undue burden.
Attorneys for the Beatrice Six countered that the Pardons Board doesn't have legal immunity from participating as witnesses in a lawsuit.
"Absolute immunity of quasi-judicial proceedings means only that the board members cannot be sued for their actions," a brief for the six said. "It does not protect them from testifying as witnesses."
The judge did not comment in his order on why he rejected the subpoena request.
Neither the Attorney General's Office nor attorneys for the Beatrice Six responded to requests Wednesday for comment on the judge's order.
Trial in the lawsuits is set to begin Jan. 6.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.