LINCOLN — A national expert on the phenomenon of false confessions blamed Gage County investigators Friday for sending six people to prison for a murder they didn't commit.
Dr. Richard Leo said sheriff's investigators didn't have to use blatant threats or torture to coerce false confessions out of three members of the so-called Beatrice Six.
“Each case is a train wreck, a tragedy, lives ruined,” said Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco who has extensively researched false confessions since the early 1990s.
He testified Friday on behalf of the six, who are the first people in Nebraska to have felony convictions overturned by DNA testing of crime scene evidence. The tests led authorities to the true killer, an Oklahoma man who died in 1992.
A jury trial is underway in U.S. District Court on a civil rights lawsuit filed by the six against the county and its sheriff's investigators. The trial, which completed its fifth day Friday, is expected to last another two weeks.
The Beatrice Six collectively served more than 70 years in prison for the 1985 death of Helen Wilson, 68, who was raped and suffocated in her downtown Beatrice apartment. Only one of the defendants maintained his innocence.
Much of Leo's time on the witness stand Friday was spent trying to help jurors understand a question central to the Beatrice case: Why would five people accept guilt for a crime they didn't commit?
“We all have our breaking point,” he said, noting that he has reviewed scores of false confessions.
Confessions are highly sought by investigators and prosecutors because they nearly always produce convictions.
Many people don't realize that police are allowed to lie to suspects about what evidence they have, and they often do, Leo said. The goal is to pressure the suspect into thinking it's better to confess and cut a deal than face a sure conviction at trial.
While those techniques can produce legitimate confessions, they had the opposite effect in the Beatrice case, Leo said.
People with mental illness or low intelligence are the most likely to falsely confess, he said. The three people who gave false confessions in the Beatrice case — Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean and Debra Shelden — all had a history of psychological problems.
The 1989 cold-case investigation was led by Gage County Deputy Burt Searcey, who used interrogations to prove a theory, Leo said. Attorneys for the six read transcripts of Searcey's interrogations to the jury, and Leo pointed out what should have been red flags.
Most problematic, Leo said, were the times when Searcey would contaminate the witnesses by providing crime scene information only the killers would know. Such contamination is condemned in police interrogation manuals, Leo said.
For example, when Taylor inaccurately said the attack took place in a house in the early evening, Searcey and another investigator helped her remember it took place in an apartment late at night.
He also showed a crime scene video to Dean and later took him to the victim's apartment to help him develop what would be court testimony.
Leo was critical of the role of Dr. Wayne Price, a psychologist who worked as a reserve deputy for the department.
When a distraught Dean repeatedly told authorities he could not recall his involvement in the crime, Price suggested he may have repressed the memories. As a result, Dean began to say he recalled details from the crime through his dreams.
Shelden also struggled to recall details and relied on so-called dream testimony.
All three testified at trial against Joseph E. White, the only one to refuse a plea bargain. White was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Dean, Shelden and Taylor were allowed to plead to lesser charges.
Thomas Winslow initially gave a statement to Searcey but quickly recanted. He pleaded no contest to a lesser charge, as did Kathleen Gonzalez, who did not confess to the crime.
Under cross examination by an attorney representing Gage County, Leo said the Beatrice case was the only false confession case he's worked on with more than three defendants. Leo said he was paid $275 per hour to review the case and testify at the trial.
In 2008, White won a court challenge that allowed DNA testing of blood and semen samples preserved in a police evidence locker. The tests cleared the six and led to a former Beatrice resident named Bruce Allen Smith, who was passing through town on the night of the murder.
After his release from prison, White returned to his home state of Alabama, where he died in a 2011 workplace accident. His estate is represented in the case by his mother.