Price of injustice comes home for county taxpayers

Monday, October 8, 2018

Most of us tend to look the other way when it comes to the criminal justice system.

Unless weíre a victim or the accused, itís easier to worry about our own issues than whatís going on in court.

Thatís true until the bill comes due for mistakes and abuses by law enforcement and prosecutors.

Gage County, Neb., property owners are feeling the pain.

They owe $28.1 million to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 rape and murder, who served a combined 70 years in prison for the slaying of 68-year-old Helen Wilson.

The inmates were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008, and the county isnít expected to win further appeals of the civil judgment.

County supervisors, under threat of a court order, voted last month to raise the countyís property tax levy by 11.76 cents per $100 of valuation, generating about $3.8 million next year. Thatís an extra $177 in taxes on a $150, 000 home.

State Sen. Roy Baker, who isnít seeking re-election, introduced bills last year to let the county seek direct state reimbursement or loan, but those didnít advance in last yearís fiscal climate.

Convictions like the Beatrice Six are all too common in the American criminal justice system, where the poor or intellectually disabled go without adequate representation.

In this case, some with those characteristics accepted plea deals after investigators told them they might face the death penalty. Only one maintained his innocence through trial, but was convicted on the testimony of others who had struck plea deals.

Sen. Ernie Chambers noted that Gage County voters overwhelmingly supported the 2016 ballot measure to reinstate capital punishment, and isnít likely to feel much sympathy for property owners there.

"This was strictly a county matter," said Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha. "They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it."

Unfortunately, many of those who are being forced to pay the bill had no hand in ďmaking the bed,Ē having moved to the county in the years since.

The former county attorney who chose not to run DNA testing in the case is immune from liability, and the former sheriff died eight years ago.

The Beatrice Six case and others like it spotlight the need to elect ethical and competent sheriffs and county attorneys and hold them accountable.

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