Plea Deals Risking Innocent Lives
Less than 30 miles north of the Kansas border, a 68 year-old woman named Helen Wilson was raped and murdered during the winter of 1985. The heinous crime rocked the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, and put into motion a series of events that would put not one, but six innocent people behind bars.
The FBI’s initial investigation, which concluded that the crime had been committed by a single person acting alone. However, a series of mistakes and manipulations led to accusations that six people were involved in the crime–Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Sheldon, and Ada JoAnn Taylor.
Of the six people who were accused of the crime, five confessed to being involved. Only Joseph White maintained his innocence. Ultimately, all six were convicted and sentenced to prison. They served a combined total of more than 70 years for a crime they did not commit.
A break in the case came following the passage of the Nebraska DNA Testing Act in 2001. Joseph White was able to push for DNA testing from the crime scene, using testing methods that had not been available at the time of the trial. The testing proved that White not a match to any evidence at the crime scene, and neither were any of the other five defendants.
The DNA matched Bruce Allen Smith, who died in Oklahoma City a few years after the Beatrice murder. During the initial investigation, Smith had been a suspect, but was released after an Oklahoma lab botched a test on evidence that later revealed he was the real killer.
Why did the other five people confess to a crime they had no part in committing? All of them now say they pleaded to lesser charges under the threat of the electric chair—Nebraska’s method of execution until 2009. After spending decades in prison, these five people were officially pardoned in 2009. Joseph White was exonerated in an appeal trial and released in 2008.
Instead of keeping violent criminals off of the street, the plea deals in this case ended up risking the lives of six innocent people, while the real killer went free. As a November 2008 editorial in the Lincoln Journal Star proclaimed, “The circumstances of the Beatrice case ought to shake the faith of the most hardened defender of the death penalty.” The only way to prevent these errors and their catastrophic consequences is to replace the death penalty with life without parole.