LINCOLN — Tom Winslow testified through tears of the horrors he experienced in prison, locked away for a rape and murder he didn't commit.
One of six people wrongly convicted in the 1985 homicide of Helen Wilson of Beatrice, Winslow started serving his 50-year sentence in 1990. The first two days weren't bad.
“I was sexually assaulted after three days,” Winslow told a jury this week during his civil rights trial in U.S. District Court.
All five surviving members of the Beatrice Six, whose convictions were overturned by DNA testing more than 20 years after the crime, took the stand this week.
Friday marked the 10th day of their civil trial against Gage County and the sheriff's investigators whose investigation helped convict the wrong people.
But in a ruling late Friday, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf dismissed Gage County as a defendant in the case. Kopf said the lawsuit can proceed against two deputies involved in the investigation.
The estate of the late Jerry DeWitt, who was sheriff at the time of the investigation, remains a defendant in the lawsuit. The trial will resume Tuesday.
They described the freedom lost, the family milestones missed and the struggles endured in rebuilding their lives on the outside. Their testimony is part of an effort to seek monetary damages, which could be awarded if the jury finds authorities conducted a reckless investigation.
All six received pardons in 2009 after DNA testing unavailable in the 1980s led investigators to the true killer and rapist, an Oklahoma City man who died in 1992.
Winslow, 47, told perhaps the most difficult story. He described how he was repeatedly targeted by predators for at least 10 of the nearly 20 years he served in prison.
Choked with emotion, he told how he tried to fight off the assaults to no avail. But he knew better than to identify the attackers, saying a snitch occupies a spot even lower in the prison hierarchy than a sex offender.
So prison officials would place him in protective custody, which meant 23 hours per day in a cell. Not long after he returned to the general population, however, another predator would find him, he said.
“If I hadn't been labeled as being involved in the sexual assault of Helen Wilson, I probably wouldn't have got picked on as much,” he said.
He now resides in Tulsa, Okla., where he lives with family members and holds down two jobs as a nursing assistant, working up to 70 hours a week. He struggles with anxiety and fear, he said.
Winslow said he's careful to account for his time. For example, if he goes to a movie, he writes down the cashier's name on his ticket stub in case he's later accused of doing something illegal.
“I have no trust,” he said. “It takes really a lot for me to let someone get close to me.”
The investigation that put Winslow and the others behind bars came about four years after the victim was found in her Beatrice apartment.
Authorities also convicted Joseph E. White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathy Gonzalez.
The six collectively served more than 70 years in prison. Their lawsuit alleges sheriff's authorities conducted a reckless investigation and manufactured evidence against them.
Attorneys for Gage County and its investigators are attempting to show some of the former defendants played a central role in their own convictions by giving detailed confessions. All six had lawyers, and the five who pleaded guilty to lesser charges told the presiding judge they were being truthful.
The prosecution relied most heavily on the statements of Taylor, Shelden and Dean, all of whom now say they were pressured into giving false confessions. The three also testified at trial against White, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
White died in a workplace accident in 2011 in Alabama, where he had moved after his 2008 release. His mother now represents him in the lawsuit.
Winslow said he refused to testify against White, but he pleaded no contest to a reduced charge to avoid White's fate.
Gonzalez, who testified Friday, said she repeatedly told authorities that she was not involved with the killing, but took a deal because she thought she had no other choice.
Authorities told her in 1989 that it was her type B blood found in Wilson's apartment. The later DNA testing showed the blood, along with the semen recovered by police, belonged to the killer, Bruce Allen Smith.
When she looked back on the circumstances that led to her conviction, a tearful Gonzalez said authorities managed to pin a horrible crime on six people who existed on the fringes of society. Some had criminal histories, none was well-educated and they didn't lead Christian lives.
“They just got rid of us,” she said, “like dirty Kleenex.”