LINCOLN — A Nebraska county that owes more than $30 million to six people wrongfully convicted of murder approved a new half-cent sales tax Wednesday to help pay the legal judgment, but the former prisoners still will have to wait at least six years to collect the full amount they’re owed.
The Gage County Board voted 7-0 to impose the sales tax, which will generate an additional $1.3 million annually to cover the county’s debt.
The group, known as the Beatrice Six, collectively spent more than 70 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of a 1985 rape and killing in Beatrice, about 40 miles south of Lincoln. DNA evidence exonerated them in 2008.
The case was one of the largest examples of wrongful confession and coerced testimony in the nation’s history.
They sued Gage County the following year, alleging that the county ran a reckless investigation. A federal jury awarded them $28 million in 2016, plus interest and attorney fees that raise the total to more than $30 million. The county wasn’t properly insured when the six were convicted, and its appeals were all rejected. That left officials with no choice but to pay the judgment.
Now that the county has to pay it, “we’re trying to find ways to fund this as best as possible and take some of the burden off the landowner,” said County Board Chairman Erich Tiemann, according to the Beatrice Daily Sun.
Gage County has already raised its property tax as high as legally allowed and has started making payments of $3.8 million a year , but county officials say relying on property taxes alone isn’t fair to farmers whose land requires them to pay much more than homeowners and renters.
The new tax is intended to ease that burden and possibly allow the county to pay the judgment in six years instead of eight.
Starting Jan. 1, anyone who buys $100 worth of taxable goods or services in Gage County will pay an extra 50 cents to help with the judgment.
Even with the extra funding, the surviving members of the Beatrice Six will probably have to wait years to receive everything they’re owed. Joseph E. White, the only one of the six to refuse a plea bargain, died in a workplace accident in 2011, less than three years after winning his freedom. Others have health problems.
Attorneys for the six weren’t immediately available for comment.
The board’s vote followed a newly enacted state law, tailored to Gage County’s situation, that allows counties to impose a sales tax to pay off a legal judgment without putting the issue on the ballot, as is normally required.
Lawmakers approved the measure over the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts, who argued that voter approval should have been required.
“It’s something that should definitely help the property owners in Gage County,” said State Sen. Myron Dorn, a former Gage County Board member who sponsored the law.
It’s unlikely that voters would approve a sales tax increase because many didn’t live in the county when authorities were investigating the killing, and some residents still believe the six were involved, even though state officials have declared them innocent. Some of the six have been diagnosed with mental health problems and were coerced into confessing with threats of capital punishment.
Both the sales and property taxes will expire once the judgment is paid in full.
This report includes material from World-Herald archives.